'Yes, the government really is waging a "war" against the BBC'
Patrick Barwise and Peter York
- Credit: PA/Patrick Barwise/Steve Ullatho
When we started researching our book The War Against the BBC, some people thought the title was a bit over the top. No one says that now.
Like two Cassandras, we’ve been unsuccessfully warning about the Government quietly salami-slicing the BBC to death. Now – partly thanks to the gobbiness of culture secretary Nadine Dorries – people are finally waking up to the danger.
This latest attack has three key features. First and foremost, it’s about money. The BBC’s Achilles’ heel has always been politicians’ control over its income.
In 2010, George Osborne (with no published analysis, public consultation or parliamentary scrutiny) cut its funding. In 2015 (after six secret meetings with Murdoch executives – but, again, no other consultation) he cut it again.
By 2019, its real (inflation-adjusted) public funding was down 30% on 2010 – far more than most people realise – against ever-increasing real content and distribution costs, driven by the US "streamers". As the NAO confirms, with annual inflation over 5%, freezing the licence fee for another two years (with, again, no consultation) will significantly reduce service quality: fewer original UK programmes, more repeats, and so on.
After two years, households will be saving £16/year in return for less good TV and radio. Absurdly, Dorries claims this will help them manage the imminent £1,000/year-plus average increase in energy bills, tax rises and general inflation (and, for many poorer households, losing £20 a week off Universal Credit).
If they tried to abolish the BBC overnight, the backlash would make the poll tax riots look like a vicarage tea party. We Brits still spend an average of over two hours a day using BBC TV, radio and online services – vastly more than any other product or service brand. And, despite decades of right-wing newspapers telling us not to trust it, when asked "which one news source" we’d turn to for trusted news, half of us pick the BBC – versus 1% or less for each of the papers telling us not to.
But most Britons still take it for granted and a large minority – almost 30% – say the £159/year TV licence fee (for those who have to pay it) represents poor value for money. In 2015, a BBC-commissioned study invited a representative sample of this 30% to live without it for just nine days, in return for nine days’ licence fee (£3.60 in 2015). After nine days with no BBC, two-thirds had changed their minds, having realised how much they used, enjoyed and relied on it and how little it was costing them.
Secondly, although this government isn’t usually great on transparency, it’s made no attempt to hide the political aims of this latest attack. The Sunday Times, which first reported the funding cut (apparently before the BBC itself had been told) explicitly described it as part of "'Operation Red Meat', a platter of eye-catching plans that will appeal to the Tory backbenchers who hold the prime minister’s fate in their hands”. And it was Dorries herself who told him to “throw red meat at his backbenchers”.
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Dorries has also openly linked the cut to the corporation’s "biased" news coverage. Newly appointed, she said “Nick Robinson has cost the BBC a lot of money” after Robinson (former chairman of the National Young Conservatives, so hardly a leftie) interrupted the PM’s evasive word torrent during an interview. Dorries has also said the BBC’s “pervasive, Left-leaning mindset” is “inextricably linked” to its funding level. No previous culture secretary has so blatantly sought to undermine its editorial independence.
Finally, Dorries apparently thinks the "migration" of viewers to subscription services such as Netflix makes the end of the licence fee "inevitable" after 2027. Work is, apparently, already under way on the mid-term review to replace it with a new model: “The days of state-run television are over… It’s all over for the BBC as they know it.”
The favoured model is subscriptions – the end of a universally available, free-to-air BBC.
This should be fun. One thing we can say with high confidence is that the BBC will not be funded by subscriptions in 2028 – for the simple reason that it won’t be technically possible to stop non-subscribers from accessing its services until, at best, the mid-2030s, when broadband is universally available and universally adopted, so digital broadcast networks can be switched off.
And then? Even the most fanatical free-marketeers have never, to our knowledge, claimed that, for the same range and quality of services, a subscription-funded BBC would cost viewers and listeners less than the licence fee. In reality, the average subscription would need to be much higher to cover marketing and customer service costs and the missing revenue from households who chose not to subscribe.
Dorries clearly hasn’t begun to think this through. Right now, special advisors and interns are, presumably, painfully discovering the awkward truths about subscriptions. We have some advice for them: it’s all in our book. And the person who draws the short straw tells Nadine.
Patrick Barwise and Peter York are authors of The War Against the BBC: How an Unprecedented Combination of Hostile Forces Is Destroying Britain's Greatest Cultural Institution... And Why You Should Care.