Today’s long awaited White Paper on the future of the BBC heralds a major shake-up in the Corporation’s governance and a significant retreat from some of Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s more radical ambitions to ‘top-slice’ the licence fee and interfere in programme scheduling. Stealthier methods, such as Ofcom’s new power to police content ‘distinctiveness’ and Government appointees on the new unitary Board, may now be used to clip the BBC’s wings. The idea that some licence fee money should be open to contest from other broadcasters also now has a foot in the door. Still missing is a coherent account of precisely what problems any of these measures are intended to address.
Failing institutions require fundamental change, including greater competition where it can improve quality and provide better value for money. But there is no sense in which the BBC deserves to be classed as a failing institution. It leads the field in the popularity of its output. Its programmes scoop endless awards, here and abroad. Public trust and favourability ratings are very high. Its weekly global audience is now 348 million and rising. Its international commercial wing racks up more than £1bn in foreign sales annually. The BBC isn’t just a great British institution; it’s one of the most successful global brands on the planet. Why meddle with it?
The answer is that, for John Whittingdale and those who think like him, the BBC is an ideological abomination precisely because it is so successful. It punctures the myth that markets are always better at allocating resources and giving people what they want. Public bodies are supposed to be repositories of mediocrity and waste, so when market fundamentalists are confronted with evidence to the contrary they do what fundamentalists of all stripes invariably do. Instead of re-evaluating their ideological assumptions they attempt to bend reality to their will, regardless of the cost.
The main problem Whittingdale has confronted in pressing the case for radical change is that his reflexes on this are profoundly unconservative. One of the genuine virtues of conservatism, properly understood, is its reverence for established institutions, especially those that function effectively and command a large measure of national loyalty. It has little patience for grand utopian schemes that try to remake the world according to abstract theories. The real conservative position in this debate has been represented not by the Culture Secretary, but by Lord Fowler, the Thatcher-era Minister who this week fronted an all-party campaign to defend the BBC’s independence, and by Clare Foges, David Cameron’s ex-speech writer, who on Monday wrote that undermining the BBC “would be like the US attacking Hollywood or France its wine producers”.
Foges’ analogies are entirely correct. As I discovered in the process of writing a report that has just been published by the TUC, the BBC is pivotal to the strength of the creative industries, a strategically vital economic sector that contributes £84bn to the UK annually and has grown at twice the rate of the economy as a whole since 2008. This success has enabled the UK to become, in the phrase of historian Dominic Sandbrook, a “cultural superpower” wielding influence and winning business through the attractiveness of our arts and entertainment. The BBC contributes to this by taking creative risks and nurturing British talent to an extent that no commercial broadcaster would ever do. In particular, it channels a much higher proportion of its revenue into original British programming than its rivals, in turn supporting a network of 2700 creative businesses through the supply chain. The BBC is also the leading provider of quality training across the creative industries, including non-BBC employees, and a “national champion” for technological innovation, leading the process of digital switchover and pioneering video-on-demand through development of the iPlayer.
Why does the BBC do all of this? The main reason is its public service remit set out in the Royal Charter and its formal agreement with the government. This mandates the BBC to act in the national interest, performing a wide range of services and functions for which there is no immediate commercial incentive. In doing so, it supports and complements the private sector. The BBC attracts hostility because many on the right insist that the private sector doesn’t need to be complemented, least of all by a public body. But there is an older tradition that takes a different view. The BBC was in fact founded on a deeply conservative vision of public service embodied in the austere Calvinism of its first Director General, Lord Reith. The mini rebellion that has forced the Culture Secretary to shelve some of his more radical ideas suggests that it still holds some sway.
Today’s White Paper will certainly not be the last word in this debate. The BBC’s enemies now intend to regroup and use the announced “health check” at the mid-point of the eleven year Charter period to resume the fight if the Tories win another majority at the next election. Much will therefore depend on how the Conservative Party changes in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and who it chooses as its next leader. Will it take a turn to the radical right or try to hug the centre ground as a One Nation party? The BBC’s long-term future is far from being a settled matter.
David Clark is a political writer and analyst who served as Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001. His report, Best of British: How the BBC powers the UK’s creative industries, has just been published by the TUC.