We don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. Well that might be true of the BBC as we know it.
At a time when the government has taken a lot of heat in parliament and the media – on tax, welfare and Europe to name but a few issues – one issue has escaped high-level political scrutiny: ministers’ plans for the future of the BBC. Ask yourself this: who is sticking up for the corporation’s funding and who is fighting for its independence? The answer, at present: no-one in power.
During any charter renewal, this would be concerning. But given the downright hostility on the part of Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, this is truly remarkable, especially knowing that he has said that “my private view has always been that you have a much smaller BBC”.
The problem for our public service broadcaster is not that it lacks public support. On the contrary, the British people are passionately supportive of the BBC. The problem is that there are no newspapers, radio stations or television channels exposing just what is at stake. The traditional media is not on the pitch.
BBC executives have pursued a strategy of self-censorship; we can assume favouring a path of diplomacy. The popular press – notably the Murdoch papers – has most to gain from a US style broadcast market favoured by Whittingdale. We can expect little in the way of government scrutiny on their pages.
In George Osborne and Michael Gove – regarded by some as the two sharpest political operators in the Tory party – we have two of the most influential cabinet ministers in cahoots with Murdoch. Neither of whom has made any efforts to hide their admiration for him.
Even the Opposition has not found capacity within its allotted time in the House of Commons to properly quiz ministers, despite major alarm bells.
Contrast this with public campaigning. Nearly 400,000 of us have signed the 38 Degrees petition to protect our BBC. 177,000 of us made individual submissions to the government’s consultation on the BBC’s future. We are on the pitch – albeit against an elite outfit with unfair advantages. It is a perverse setting for a fair contest which raises serious questions about the plurality of the political sphere in Britain today.
What, then, is at stake? The threats to the BBC as we know it are twofold.
First, its independence to decide on its channels, its programming and its news reporting. Interviewed for a Sunday newspaper last month, Whittingdale set out plans for the new body that will oversee the BBC to have a majority-Downing Street appointed board. People would be outraged to think that the government could hold such influence over news, programmes and the future of TV and radio channels. The revelation sits behind an online paywall having failed to make the BBC news bulletins.
Second, the money available to the BBC. Independent media consultants Enders Analysis have reported on the scale of cuts that the BBC has already faced – “a fall in total public service broadcast funding of at least 20% since 2010/2011”. Let us be under no illusion that without sustained public pressure, this erosion will be set to continue for the decade-long agreement that the government will deliver by year’s end.
Now, some reasons for optimism. The British people have an attachment with the BBC, as YouGov polling published yesterday reveals. The BBC tops the poll as the most trusted source of news for ‘balanced and unbiased reporting of news stories’. People are five times more likely to say that the BBC strengthens Britain’s influence on the world stage than those who say weakens it. And 55% report that the BBC makes them proud to be British, compared to 29% who say it does not.
In a separate poll, it was found that people over 60 – a key political target group – do not trust the government to protect the BBC during the Charter renewal, with more than twice as many saying that they do not trust the government (62%) compared to those reporting that they do (27%).
David Cameron’s government has learnt the hard way about being on the wrong side of public opinion – especially when it comes to these groups of voters. Whether on planned cuts to personal independence payments this year, or the abandoned cuts to tax credits last year, ministers know that they cannot hold back the tide of public opinion when they are judged to be at odds with the British electorate.
Where the political elite is at worst conspiring or at best seemingly indifferent, it falls on campaigners – people of all political persuasions and none – to make the strength of public opinion heard. Traditional media will catch up when the moment comes. It’s not too late for parliamentarians to use the powers invested in them to hold government to account. But time is running out – and there is a lot at stake.
David Babbs is executive director of 38 Degrees.