In this week’s New Statesman: The plot against the BBC

Featuring: Roger Mosey, Jason Cowley, Joan Bakewell, Tristram Hunt, Rachel Cooke and Mehdi Hasan

The plot against the BBC

“If the BBC has often fallen short of its high ideals, one should at least be grateful that it still has them,” says the New Statesman’s Leader this week. After a wave of justified criticism, the BBC has lost the trust of many. But if there is consolation to be drawn from the events of recent weeks, it is that so many expected better from the BBC. We have come to expect failings from successive institutions – parliament, the private press, the police. The BBC, however, retains our trust in its idealism. In this week’s issue, we bring together many voices in defence of the broadcaster, and consider its future.

The editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley, writes:

If you were setting up a national broadcaster today you wouldn’t create the BBC in its present form, with its many layers of middle management, labyrinthine processes and structures and its desire to be all things to all people. Yet the BBC remains one of few British institutions . . . admired throughout the world, for its impartiality, the range and quality of its programmes and, in spite of the Newsnight debacle, commitment to truth-telling.

As a senior source at the corporation tells Cowley:

The search for someone to blame is always successful. But the solution to each crisis seems to sow the seeds for the next. So we will probably end up with even more managers, more box ticking, and more compliance ‘to stop this happening again’. I knew something was wrong when the compliance officer became the most powerful person in the building.

Compliance should be left to engineering firms. The BBC needs to restore the culture where producers are given the confidence to produce and editors the confidence to edit. Because that climate was destroyed after Hutton and Brand.

The broadcaster, writer and Labour peer Joan Bakewell puts things into perspective:

Hundreds of hours of [well-researched, responsibly written and overall excellent] programmes pour from the BBC every day. They reach every corner of the country, spread across the world, earn money and reputation . . . and have no commercials! So let’s have a sense of perspective, can we? . . .

Nonetheless wherever broadcasters come together they moan about the BBC. It’s always the same gripe: too many managers . . . Nothing that has happened this week has surprised me. There has always been a paradox at the very top of the BBC.

The head of BBC Television, Roger Mosey, writes about why he promoted George Entwistle, the director general he respected for “his intelligence, his decency and his humour”:

History will judge what George and the BBC could have done better in fighting the firestorm but what I do know is that he’s a good man who shouldn’t be held responsible for the evils of previous decades. And as his colleague and friend in recent days, I know he didn’t deserve the level of national vilification that now seems to be the punishment for anyone who makes mistakes in public office.

In the end, Mosey argues, it is the long-term quality of BBC output that will define the corporation, not its “scandals” and “meltdowns”.

We hold others accountable, so there’s no argument that we should be accountable too. But as a journalistic culture, we should apply ourselves to the difference between what’s serious wrongdoing in the sense of being criminal or wicked – and what’s just a “good” story with fallible human beings at the centre of it.

There’s no question we’ve taken multiple hits as an organisation but you can’t be a BBC boss and not expect periodic crises . . . we know that the BBC’s corporate reputation is destined to have a roller-coaster ride. But the deeper test is what audiences think about our programmes rather than about the corporation itself.

Here there is reason for confidence.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

 

Terry Pratchett: The day he nearly died – and who’s taking over the Discworld

Laurie Penny, who returns to the New Statesman as a contributing editor this week, interviews the comic novelist, campaigner and “professional morbid bastard” Terry Pratchett about his life and work.

Pratchett discloses a near death experience, and also reveals the plan for his daughter Rhianna to “take over the Discworld when I’m gone”. Read exclusive extracts from the story here.

 

Rafael Behr: George Osborne doesn’t see that voters can love the idea of benefit cuts but end up hating the cutters

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr writes about the Welfare Reform Act – due to be voted in on 21 November. “As a piece of theatre,” Behr writes, “the vote on a statutory instrument filling gaps in the Welfare Reform Act is a non-event.”

Yet this shuffling of regulations into law is momentous for hundreds, possibly thousands of families. It finalises the conditions that mean, after April 2013, they could be evicted from their homes. That is when the “benefits cap” comes into force, limiting the amount any household can receive to £500 per week, £350 for childless singles.

Few households are technically in receipt of benefits above the capped level – about 20,000, mostly in London. None of them feels it as disposable income. The numbers are inflated by housing benefit (already subject to a separate cap), which has run out of control chasing the capital’s exorbitant rents. But outrage at perversities in the current system is greater than attention to the detail of who is affected by coalition policy. That anger has been successfully exploited by Conservatives, painting Labour as the party for handing public money to wastrels.

While some of the coalition’s welfare policies might be honourably motivated, the function of this particular change is neither budget consolidation nor reform. It is a gesture of pure political positioning by George Osborne that happens as a side effect to turn some of London’s poorest families out of their homes.

 

“What is the point of me? I don’t really know.” Charlie Brooker interviewed by Helen Lewis

The career of the university drop-out, cartoonist, games reviewer, broadcaster and celebrity satirist Charlie Brooker “has been more a series of drunken lurches than an orderly line”. Helen Lewis talks to Brooker about his most recent pitch-black comedy trilogy, Black Mirror:

Brooker is writing a second series of the show, but I have to ask him: how did it get made in the first place? How do you tell Channel 4 that you want to show the prime minister porking a pig? “That episode was a replacement,” he says. “There’s a script that is as yet unmade, that was bleaker.”

At short notice, he had to pitch to Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s creative officer . . . In the end, Channel 4’s only quibble was whether it had to be a pig. “We went around the houses. We thought about different animals: about frozen supermarket chicken, at one point a big block of cheese. But whatever you tried to substitute for it wasn’t quite the same – like if it’s a sheep, that’s just too comic. I suggested a duck, but that’s again just too weird. A pig is disgusting enough.

 

Ed Smith: King of the spinners

In our lead book review this week, the former Test cricketer and now NS columnist Ed Smith reviews Gideon Haigh’s biography of Shane Warne. “Facing Shane Warne was only incidentally about cricket,” Smith writes. “Sport was the medium but the substance was drama.”

Warne’s cultivation of a distinctive and compelling on-field persona, Smith suggests, was not without its costs:

In seeking mastery of an authentic personality on the stage, authenticity in “civilian” life becomes ever more elusive . . . All great actors sacrifice something of themselves in the pursuit of a truthful performance. So do sportsmen. Warne, the great method actor of modern sport, has perhaps paid a higher price than most.

 

For a review of what's in The Critics section of the New Statesman this week, have a look at our "In the Critics" feature here.

 

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: www.newstatesman.com/subscribe

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.