Safe in their hands 

15 April 2005

There once was a time when Britain was a very different place. All three major parties, for instance, believed in something called “the post-war consensus”.

This neat package was shorthand for “what the people will stand for”, or, perhaps better phrased as “what lines you can’t cross without being dumped for a political generation from government”.

Lots of things were covered. The people would have free healthcare, pensions and benefits. The vital industries that employed the most people and were required for growth and security – electricity, water, gas, the railways – would be owned by the state on behalf of the people. The media would be unfettered and the BBC would be the principal instrument of broadcasting.

These consensus values lasted from their establishment in 1945 until the 1980s. At that point, they began to disappear; although they did so in such a way that the people for whom they were provided barely noticed.

By the end of the 20th century, only free healthcare, pensions and benefits and the BBC still existed as consensus issues that no party would touch. Even then, the health system had been starved of cash until it was almost ready to collapse, the pensions money had run out and the people claiming the benefit they had paid for as National Insurance and voted for consistently since 1945 were, not to put too fine a point on it, scum.

That left the BBC to stand as the only consensus item left untouched. As election followed election and the two main parties both drifted to the right, the BBC remained free from too much attention: Labour was in favour of the BBC because it was non-commercial; the Tories were in favour of the BBC because their voters watched it.

To change the BBC’s status meant challenging the last consensus. The Tories had long itched to privatise it all or in part but feared for a backlash in the Home Counties. Labour longed for the BBC to triumph over the commercial sector as it was liable to be fairer to a non-commercial political party.

The Tories had gone as far as promising to privatise Channel Four in the 2001 election (for reasons best known to themselves and the dogma they had been mired in since 1990) but had ignored the BBC. In the same election, Labour had ignored the BBC other than to guarantee its independence – in retrospect, a worrying thing to have to promise when no-one had thought it to be in doubt.

The came a war. A war that was unpopular with the voters – and spectacularly unpopular with Labour voters in particular. Worse, the BBC did what the BBC does and reported the run up to the war dispassionately and with all the facts.

These facts were not good for the Labour government. They pointed to lies, half-truths, deceit in high places and plans for war first, reasoning second.

And then the BBC crossed the line. An ill thought out interview between a reporter in his pyjamas and the radio studio at seven in the morning finally produced what the government had been looking for – a mistake by the BBC.

The government wasn’t in a position to complain too loudly about reports of it being deceitful (because it was being deceitful and knew it). But it was in a position to take action on a single mistake.

With that, and the whitewash report that followed and cost the heads of the Director General and the chairman, the consensus was broken.

Now Labour, bent on vengeance, could start to suggest that, for the good of the country and the BBC, the organisation should be split up, sold on or disbanded. At the very least, the independent-minded governors should go; the business should be reorganised to make a later sale easier; and a debate on the licence fee should take place. A white paper to this effect was issued.

This debate was manna for the Tories. As a party lost in a wilderness of their own making, they needed a hook to drag themselves up by (or the people down into the mire with them – either would do). That hook could be tax cuts; the “bias” at the BBC could be used as an excuse for “doing something” about the BBC; the licence fee was now fair game.

The government had opened a Pandora’s Box, and the Tories had come out of it.

John Whittingdale, the shadow Culture Secretary, was first to make the Tory policy on the BBC clear.

“The changes outlined are largely cosmetic. The Government has taken the right approach but in every area has failed to go far enough” he said.

“We … believe that the need for change should be addressed now and the charter should be looked at again in five years’ time… the Government appears content merely to tinker at the edges of the existing structure while essentially allowing the BBC to continue for another ten years with business as usual.”

In other words, the BBC should be privatised immediately, to save money (whose?) and increase choice (by decreasing quality?).

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for the Department of Media, Culture and Sport, famously does not own a television. That, however, has not stopped her from being involved in creating government policy on the BBC.

Her views are more muddled than the Conservatives, but still retain evidence of bad things ahead for the BBC.

“The BBC licence fee will be reviewed as part of the bigger process of the review of the BBC’s charter,” she promises vaguely on the Labour website.

“Previous charter reviews have looked at the option of funding the BBC through advertising revenue and established the principle drawback which is the broadly fixed amount of advertising revenue available. One consequence were the BBC to take advertising would be to reduce the revenue available to other public service broadcasters, like ITV and Channel 4.”

That seems to reveal the depth of New Labour thinking on the BBC: don’t make it take advertising because it might harm other channels – hardly a ringing endorsement.

On privatising the BBC but keeping the licence fee – a plan that would satisfy no one, annoy everyone, and ruin the BBC as badly as any other plan could – she stays silent.

At the 2004 Labour party conference, she said “We are reviewing the BBC’s Charter now… I can assure you of this – the BBC will emerge from the process strong, independent of the Government, and even closer to the people who own it – the licence payers of Britain. This Party is building a progressive consensus for what a civilised society is.”

Perhaps she meant future shareholders who own it?

The Liberal Democrats make more sense on the issue, perhaps because they have always stood apart from the consensus anyway, having not been included in it by the main parties when they faced extinction in the 1950s.

Don Foster, their culture spokesman, told the House of Commons, “despite the fact that the BBC gets it wrong from time to time, anything that we were to do to damage it seriously would be at our peril. We need a strong, independent and well and reference has rightly been made to the disgraceful episodes during the Hutton inquiry involving the behaviour not least of Mr Alastair Campbell in his attacks on the BBC.”

He continued, perhaps being the only contributor to see the bigger picture, adding “it is … important that in any debate about the future of the BBC, we also keep an eye on the importance of ensuring support for the other public service broadcasters: currently, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.”

Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats’ spokesman also seems in thrall to the idea of change for change sake: “we need an independent governance working alongside Ofcom to regulate the BBC, but I would go further: I would prefer a totally independent regulator with responsibility for all public service broadcasters, ensuring that they all met their individual remits.”

How this immense bureaucracy would work, and how it would improve on the current set up (other than, perhaps, making ITV finally accountable to the viewers again) is not discussed by Mr Foster.

So, under which government would the BBC be safe? None of them is the obvious answer. The Tories would privatise the BBC as punishment for being not privatised. Labour will attempt to bully the BBC into compliance with “The Project”, then fundamentally ruin the BBC anyway with an ill-considered set of reforms. The Lib Dems would chew the matter over, trying to please everybody and coming up with something unworkable that can’t be implemented.

So who should you vote for if you want the BBC to stay the great broadcaster it is now and has been since the 1920s?

Well, none of the above, it seems. But if you don’t vote, you’ll be guiltier of ruining the BBC by a sin of omission than any of the parties will be through commission.

This article was written in the lead up to the UK Parliamentary Elections held in May 2006.

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