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17 February 2020

The arrival of Times Radio is as much about politics as media competition

As Rupert Murdoch’s new venture poaches BBC presenters, what does the future of British broadcasting look like?

By Jasper jackson

And so the bleeding begins. The first big name has been lured from the BBC to Rupert Murdoch’s new venture, Times Radio, with John Pienaar, the corporation’s deputy politics editor, jumping ship

It is, for now, just one high-profile presenter. But it marks the opening of a new front against the BBC that has as much to do with politics as it does commercial competition.

As the Guardian has reported, Times Radio is targeting the BBC’s top names, including Chris Mason, recently anointed host of Radio 4’s Any Questions, and Today presenter Nick Robinson.

[See also: Is Downing Street preparing for all-out war with the BBC?]

The project is being run as a joint venture between Murdoch’s two high-end newspapers, the Times and the Sunday Times, and his radio operation Wireless, which already runs talkRADIO, talkSPORT and Virgin Radio.

Both are owned, along with the Sun, by News UK, the company helmed by Rebekah Brooks, who returned to the role in 2015 after resigning amid the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World.

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Times Radio will eschew ads, meaning it can match one of the BBC’s main selling points, in favour of sponsorship and marketing opportunities to sell subscriptions to the Times online and in print. Its launch will be overseen by Stig Abell, the former Sun managing editor who currently edits the Times Literary Supplement

The seeming viability of the whole project reflects the way the internet has broken down the barriers between different mediums.

Just as broadcasters like the BBC long ago broke into the written word with hugely popular websites, technological advances have lowered the barriers to entry for newspapers and magazines to compete for our ears.

Video remains difficult – production costs are high and the skills required both in front of and behind the camera are very different. But audio offers much less of a challenging leap. The success of podcasts from print organisations has provided proof of concept – add to that the expertise and infrastructure from News UK’s radio stations, and the Times is in a strong position. 

In this particular tussle, however, the backdrop of technological change is in many ways less important than our new political landscape. Years of Conservative rule have already taken their toll, and the BBC has been cutting costs, most recently announcing that 450 jobs are to go across its news division.

Now Boris Johnson’s comfortable majority has given the Conservative Party a platform to revisit its old obsessions with more verve, and put people such as the virulently anti-BBC Dominic Cummings into positions of power. 

The briefings coming from the government this weekend suggest a major ramping up of attempts to “whack” the BBC, proposing that the licence fee will be scrapped and a mass cull of TV channels and radio stations.

Some Conservative MPs are already pushing back. They will argue, rightly, that there will be political repercussions to extinguishing well-used and much-loved stations and channels. There are many who would miss Radio 2, which is popular among middle-aged, middle-class voters, or CBeebies, pretty much the only major provider of high-quality educational programmes that parents feel comfortable dumping their children in front of.

While the more brutal proposals for the BBC are likely hot air, the return of former culture secretary John Whittingdale to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as a minister offers a more concrete indication of where the government will go.

Whittingdale oversaw the most recent negotiations for the renewal of the BBC’s charter in 2016. Then, apocalyptic briefings about the government’s plans for the BBC laid the groundwork for what could later be presented as a compromise – a compromise that included making half of the posts on the BBC’s ruling board government appointees.

A larger majority offers Whittingdale, long a critic of the licence fee model and the BBC’s overall size, another shot at pushing through further changes, but expect them to fall short of the more spittle-flecked anonymous pronouncements from No 10.

[See also: To save itself, the BBC needs to radically change]

Whatever members of the government really want to do about the BBC, the biggest problem for anyone trying to curb its impact or output is the support it retains across pretty much every section of the public. As a brand, it has unparalleled recognition and trust.

Its critics compellingly argue that this support is the result of its privileged position on the airwaves and funding tied to the licence fee. But that doesn’t change the fact that the BBC is still one of the UK’s most-loved institutions.  

The strength of the BBC’s brand is the core challenge for its commercial rivals, its political enemies and, indeed, those who straddle both camps, such as Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers, owners of the Telegraph (the Telegraph, we should not tire of pointing out, until recently employed Prime Minister Boris Johnson on £250,000 a year).

[See also: Tony Hall’s successor as BBC director general faces a radically changed media landscape]

Its broad base of public support means those who wish to diminish the BBC have only one option: to chip away slowly.

Each familiar name that leaves, each show that has to rely on fewer reporters on pared-back production budgets, is one step towards convincing the public that the BBC “isn’t what it used to be”.

Every time a listener follows their favourite presenter’s voice over to a programme delivered by a competitor adds to the feeling that they “don’t listen to the BBC as much as I used to”. Add into that the impact of services such as Netflix and YouTube capturing younger audiences and chipping away at its broadcast foundations, and the cracks will inevitably begin to show. 

To succeed, Times Radio will have to take a chunk out of the BBC, but many of those rooting for it see it as just one part of a bigger battle to cut back the national broadcaster.