At no point in recent history has the BBC come under more sustained attack. Conservative politicians, right-wing newspapers and free-market think tanks all repeatedly question its future as a universal public-service broadcaster. Three years ahead of the renegotiation of the licence fee, they are already positioning themselves to claim victory.
It is some measure of the scale of this assault that in his interview with Ed Smith on page 28, Chris Patten can claim without fear of ridicule that “in some newspapers, the BBC gets bashed more than President Assad”. The BBC’s chairman offers a robust and persuasive defence of its role as a national broadcaster. He rightly points to polls showing that only the NHS, the armed forces and the monarchy command more affection and notes: “When people who work for the BBC talk to audiences or people from outside the UK, they’re reminded of what a fantastic national institution it is.”
As a former chairman of the Conservatives, Mr Patten singles out Grant Shapps, the current holder of that post, for criticism. Mr Shapps’s recent attack on the corporation – a cynical attempt to secure favourable coverage in advance of the general election – recycled some of the most enduring myths about the BBC: that it is biased to the left, that it is poor value for money and that it is largely opposed by the public.
After accusing the BBC’s diligent home affairs editor, Mark Easton, of inaccurate journalism, following his exposure of ministers’ false claims of “benefit tourism”, Mr Shapps added: “There is an editorial question for the BBC about applying fairness in both directions. That also is a question of credibility for the organisation.” Yet, if anything, it is the left that has cause for complaint. A recent study by academics at Cardiff University found that the BBC gives disproportionate airtime to Conservative, Eurosceptic and free-market voices. More often than not, most notably in its fawning coverage of the monarchy (and, indeed, of the United States), the corporation defers to the establishment and reinforces the status quo.
Of the licence fee, Mr Shapps inelegantly warned: “£145.50 is quite a lot to pay for everyone in the country who has a TV. It is too much if we don’t see the kind of reforms that all public organisations are used to that the BBC isn’t having to engage with as much as it could do.” That the BBC has not always spent wisely is beyond contention. With its highly remunerated presenters (the so-called talent) and senior executives, it has too often behaved like a private-sector organisation, while enjoying the benefits of being a public-sector body. Yet in both range and quality, the BBC remains remarkable value for money.
Nor is it true that the corporation has been exempt from austerity. As a result of the six-year freeze in the licence fee and the decision to force it to bear the cost of funding the World Service and the Welsh language channel S4C, it has endured a 16 per cent cut in real terms. Should its funding be further reduced, even more viewers will be forced to pay for private providers such as Sky and BT to watch the programmes and events of their choice.
Some, most recently Theresa May, claim the BBC is strangling local papers through its free-to-view website. Yet as Mr Patten points out, the absence of a comparable publicly funded broadcaster has not prevented US newspapers from suffering a similar fate.
It is the BBC’s insulation from market forces that constitutes its enduring value. Mr Patten, a One Nation Conservative of a kind his party no longer produces, displays a Burkean regard for its status as an institution that binds past and future generations. Such views are anathema to Mr Shapps and his allies, Randian dogmatists who long to unleash the market in areas where it has until now been barred. As the experience of NHS reform demonstrates, when Conservatives meddle with national institutions, they do so at their peril.