Charles Moore is highly intelligent, charming, loyal to his friends, relentlessly courteous, an outstanding biographer (the Thatcher oeuvre is magnificent) and his columns in the Telegraph are worth the effort. I disagree with nearly all of them, but they expose me to arguments that are – if bad for my blood pressure – well worth grappling with. He would also be a disastrous choice to become the next BBC chair.
You might as well have Philip Green in charge of the UK’s Pension Protection Fund, or Rupert Murdoch in charge of the press regulator Ipso. Come to think of it, don’t rule that one out – because in addition to the prospect of Lord Moore settling into his office at Broadcasting House, we are told that Paul Dacre is to be chair of Ofcom – where he will be in charge of upholding broadcasting standards and ruling on impartiality.
Dacre was a brilliant editor of the Daily Mail, where he counts among his achievements a laudable campaign to bring the murderers of Stephen Lawrence to justice. But he is a man whose world-view is largely repressive, intolerant and divisive – and you don’t have to be a metropolitan liberal (nothing worse, in his book) to think it. This is the man who decided that judges upholding the rule of law and the role of parliament were “enemies of the people”, who devoted 12 pages of the Mail to a vitriolic attack on one of the Leveson team inquiring into press standards whose views he did not much like, and who thinks the BBC peddles “a kind of cultural Marxism”.
The government has its majority of 80 – and good luck to it. It has the legitimacy of a decisive win. But democracy is not about trashing institutions that irk you, or translating dinner-party japes – “wouldn’t it be fun to have Charles and Paul at the helm of British broadcasting?” – into the serious business of running the country. There is, after all, supposed to be an impartial process to select these sorts of jobs.
A decade ago Moore refused to pay for a TV licence, because he disagreed with the £6m salary that the BBC was paying to Jonathan Ross. He had a point, even if others were offering Ross more to leave the corporation. It was a lot of money, too much, and Ross had damaged the BBC by joining Russell Brand in demeaning the much-loved Andrew Sachs of Fawlty Towers fame. (The BBC punished them both and Ross subsequently left.)
But if Moore becomes chair, that line of argument could now be used by anyone who disagrees with anything that the BBC does. You don’t like it that Gary Lineker (brilliant at his job) earns £1.75m (probably a lot less per hour than he gets from other broadcasters)? Or you think the Today programme is too aggressive when interviewing Len McCluskey? Then don’t pay your licence fee. The chair, after all, didn’t pay his licence fee when he was annoyed.
[see also: John Simpson: The BBC must strive to be impartial but it should never be timid]
At the root of this is the government’s view – and indeed the view of almost all previous governments – that the BBC is biased against it. Moore and Dacre cite the Brexit referendum result as proof of their long-held belief that the BBC is staffed by a bunch of pinkos peddling wokedom, eco-mania, statism and Europhilia – as if it were a given that the BBC campaigned against Brexit, and somehow stands condemned by the referendum result. That is ridiculous. Most of the time the BBC takes great pains to be fair. Sometimes it fails – and it is good that the incoming director-general, Tim Davie, has chosen to begin by demonstrating his commitment to impartiality.
It’s not only the BBC’s journalism that infuriates Moore and Dacre. They dislike the idea of a broadcaster funded by all, owned by all, whose remit is to deliver something of value and quality to all its audiences for 43 pence per household per day. They dislike it in principle as much as they dislike it in practice.
Lord Moore would not, of course, be required to watch Strictly or EastEnders or to listen to Radio 2. Nor does he have to like them if he does happen to stumble across them. But he does need to acknowledge their success, respect the people who make the programmes, and understand why their audiences adore them. He needs to believe that the almost century-old market intervention represented by the BBC has been a force for good in the UK, and not only during the Second World War. He needs to realise that the corporation is not a museum piece, and that redefining it as a pure market-failure broadcaster of programmes that wouldn’t otherwise be there – hooray for Radio 3, Songs of Praise and current affairs documentaries (although not those about climate change – he doesn’t really go with that) – would be to rip the guts out of a major national institution.
Everybody has an opinion about the BBC and how it could be made better. But the BBC does not need a wrecking ball, even if it is one swung by an intellectual with aesthetic aims in mind.
There have been previous prime ministerial attempts to throttle the BBC with the “right sort” of chair. In 1967, Harold Wilson appointed Charles Hill, who had been a Conservative MP and a minister in Harold Macmillan’s government, because he was fed up with Hugh Greene – the man thought of by many as one of the greatest of all director-generals. Greene was succeeded by the lesser figure of Charles Curran.
Mrs Thatcher, too, attempted to bring the BBC into line when she appointed Marmaduke Hussey as chair in 1986. Although he promptly forced out the director-general, Alasdair Milne, Hussey turned out to be nobody’s lackey.
But neither Hill nor Hussey were anything like as close to their prime ministers as Charles Moore is to Boris Johnson. Moore is too clever to be a poodle, but he won’t need to be; he is simply hostile to the institution he would be chairing.
As for Dacre – he would have to get his head around mobile telephony charges, which will take him a while, and might even restrain his unquestioned appetite for reducing the BBC’s significance in public life. But he is a force of nature and, like Charles Moore, he won’t expect to twiddle his thumbs while the management gets on with business.
The broadcasting sector is a British success story that has brought the UK a great deal of wealth and a still greater amount of soft power. The last thing it needs is to become, at the hands of Charles Moore and Paul Dacre, the victim of an ideological war.