The former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson once said that the National Health Service was the nearest thing the English people had to a national religion, but surely the BBC must come close behind. Our state broadcaster is frequently mentioned as a source of Britain’s international “soft power”, with Top Gear alone sold to more than 200 countries around the world.
The comparison between the NHS and the BBC is apposite, because these institutions suffer from several of the same malaises: overmanaged while their front lines are under-resourced, a few individuals at the top enjoying bloated salaries while low-paid workers with insecure contracts pick up the slack from redundancies and cutbacks at the bottom.
It also must be said that both organisations are too often blindly defended by the left. That is understandable. If neither existed, our country would be much the poorer for it. Yet affection for the history of these great institutions should not lead us to treat questions over their efficiency and purpose as an assault on our values. During the last election, Ed Miliband spoke of “weaponising” the health service; in the end this amounted to a handful of small-scale proposals, such as one-week tests for cancer, and a panoply of misty-eyed “I heart the NHS” badges and Twitter ribbons. Labour’s health policy was never bold or innovative: the service was supposed to function merely as an applause line, its very existence an implicit rebuke to the supposedly uncaring Tories.
It is tempting for progressives to pursue a similar strategy towards the BBC, particularly because it now seems to be coming under sustained assault from a Tory party that has always chafed at the licence fee funding a supposedly “left-wing” broadcaster. (This suggestion of left-wing bias is laughable; the BBC’s bias is merely towards the establishment.) John Whittingdale, who has long been hostile to the licence fee, is now Culture Secretary; and on 5 July the Chancellor, George Osborne, told Andrew Marr that he would curb the BBC’s “imperial” ambitions by reducing its budget. Mr Osborne added that the lifestyle features and the recipes on the BBC’s website were practically turning it into “the national newspaper as well as the national broadcaster”.
Tempting as it is to dismiss this analysis as one merely intended to help the (mostly right-wing) newspaper industry, it is fundamentally correct. For example, the BBC website publishes articles that recap trending topics on Twitter – traffic-chasing content that is in plentiful supply elsewhere. The reality shows on the youth-focused BBC3, such as Snog Marry Avoid and Don’t Tell the Bride, are hardly in the Reithian tradition. At the same time, the corporation’s coverage of news and politics has fallen far behind that of Channel 4 and Sky News in terms of the diversity of voices it represents (it is still, in Greg Dyke’s phrase, “hideously white”, but we could add to that: southern, male and middle-class). And as Jason Cowley notes in this week’s issue, there are too many long-time senior executives collecting huge salaries with far too little to show for it.
The BBC is eminently defensible. It is the best broadcaster in the world. Thanks to the licence fee, it produces content of a quality and breadth that the commercial sector could never hope to match. And it is clear that it will need to be defended as the Conservatives enjoy the newfound power their overall majority in the Commons gives them. But the BBC must overhaul its practices and get its house in order.
The perversity of the British tax system is that it falls most heavily on earned income. Successful entrepreneurs pay more tax on their earnings and business than their children do on inheriting the fruits of that labour, while the very rich are adept at avoiding taxation altogether. A homeowner whose house triples in value pays no tax on the asset other than council tax – based on property valuations fixed in 1991. Land ownership, an increasingly valuable commodity, is subject to almost no taxation at all.
This requires a fundamental change in our attitude. We need a new business model in Britain, one that shifts the burden of taxation from earned to unearned income; from taxes on income and consumption to those on static assets – property, inheritance and land. As Vince Cable has written, we should shift taxation away from “profitable, productive investment” and towards “unproductive asset accumulation”.
For his next Budget, instead of tweaking inheritance tax to benefit the already property-rich, Mr Osborne should think again: levy more tax on assets, and less on income.