Posted by Professor Richard Tait
The 2011 Parliament Act has been bad news for the BBC. It means the two periods of maximum potential political intervention in the BBC. Charter renewal every ten years and licence fee negotiations every five now coincide almost exactly with the dates of UK general elections and will do so for the foreseeable future.
General elections are always fraught times for relations between MPs and broadcasters. James Harding, the BBC’s director of news, was taken aback by the ferocity of attacks on the BBC from all the parties. He described the election campaign as both “fun” and “hell on wheels” – with some of the parties linking their complaints to threats about what they would do to the BBC after the election.
The result of the election caught the BBC, as well as the political classes, unawares. Instead of the expected coalition or minority government which would probably have been content to leave fundamental debates about the future of the BBC to another day, the corporation now has to deal with a majority Conservative government, many of whose supporters are looking for radical change, and a secretary of state, John Whittingdale, who knows his brief uncomfortably well after a decade as chairman of the Commons culture committee.
Two moments in particular stand out. In 2012 the Leveson report revealed the details of Margaret Thatcher’s secret January 1981 Chequers lunch with Rupert Murdoch which paved the way for his dominance of the UK national newspaper market. And at a meeting at Downing Street in October 1990, Margaret Thatcher literally nodded through Sky’s merger with British Satellite Broadcasting, which handed him a similar dominance of the UK pay TV market.
Changes of government brought no change in the relationship. In 1995, when it was clear that the conservatives were likely to lose the next election, Tony Blair travelled halfway across the world to address the News Corp conference on Hayman Island in Australia, on the basis that Rupert Murdoch was, in Blair’s words, “immensely powerful”, or as his Australian counterpart Paul Keating said to him: “He thought Rupert a bastard but one you could deal with”.
The Labour government did nothing to get in the way of BSkyB’s emergence as the most powerful commercial broadcaster in the UK – the so-called “Murdoch clause” in its Communications Act in 2003 would have actually allowed it to buy Channel 5 if David Putnam’s committee had not intervened, despite Downing Street disapproval.
It would not be a surprise if Rupert Murdoch had discreetly popped into Downing Street this summer – he told Leveson he had been invited to Downing Street at similar stage after the 2010 election to have a cup of tea and thanks for his support – and that he had, as with his previous visits to see Gordon Brown, been asked to come in by the back door.
Keen Murdoch watchers point to the recent green paper’s focus on the BBC’s “scale and scope” and George Osborne’s criticism of the BBC’s “imperial ambitions” online as proof that the government’s agenda is being excessively influenced by News Corp’s indefatigable executive chairman.
In his 2009 MacTaggart Lecture, his son and heir, James Murdoch, had argued that it was the BBC that was dominant – and that “the scale and the scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling”.
Six years on, that claim seems even more at odds with the facts. The effects of BSkyB’s growth (due to its own considerable efforts as well as government benevolence) and the consequences of successive Labour and Conservative administrations cutting the BBC’s real income in the last two licence fee settlements means the BBC is no longer in BSkyB’s financial league. One calculation I’ve seen (in a book due to be published next month) puts BSkyB’s operating profits over the last year at about same level as the BBC’s total investment in original TV content.
Rupert Murdoch will not be unhappy with the recent licence fee deal which further weakens the BBC’s ability to compete with him for talent and rights. His newspapers – fighting to make their own online operations pay – will applaud a government intent on cutting back the BBC’s websites. But the licence deal, though not generous, is not a catastrophe for the BBC as it won some important concessions in compensation – the indexation of the licence fee, the closure of the iPlayer loophole, the end of the broadband top-slice and (probably) no decriminalisation of the licence fee
In any event, Murdoch may well have had other concerns to discuss with George Osborne – above all the revival of his ambition to pull off one of the biggest media deals of his career – News Corp’s acquisition of the 61% of BSkyB it does not own. When the Cameron government was about to approve this in 2011, analysts talked of “the UK’s Berlusconi moment”. It was torpedoed, not by any concern about media monopolies, but by the phone-hacking scandal. Now it could be back on the agenda.
Even if News Corp is not calling the tune on the BBC to the extent some fear, the danger for the BBC in this sort of environment is that the politicians begin to chip away at that independence from political interference which is what has up to now distinguished the corporation from most public broadcasters in the world. The licence fee is meant to insulate the BBC from direct government influence or control over how it spends its budget; the BBC’s journalism must be accurate and impartial, but it, rather than the government or some third party, has always been the judge of how well it meets that obligation. Both those key elements of independence are now at risk.
Cash-strapped and shackled
The licence fee deal loads the BBC with costs – S4C, World Service, free licences for the over 75s – which could amount to almost a third of the BBC’s total licence fee income in a few years’ time, undermining support for the licence which is already under pressure from on-demand viewing. The two long-term alternatives – subscription or a household tax – both have potential problems. The BBC opposes subscription because it underlines the universality of its service; a household tax, unless introduced with significant safeguards, runs the risk of making the BBC even more beholden to the politicians.
As far as the BBC’s journalism – still the most trusted source of news in the UK – is concerned, the green paper envisages the BBC losing the right to judge its own output’s impartiality and accuracy, which would be handed over to Ofcom, the commercial broadcast regulator.
In 2006, when this was last debated, the BBC (just) won the argument that responsibility for its impartiality and accuracy was so central to its independence from political interference that it should not be given to a third party but should be given to the new BBC Trust.
The trust has argued that even if it now disappears, editorial standards should go to a new, independent BBC regulator. Whichever way the argument, the new system will need to be robust enough to stand up to those politicians who believe the BBC’s journalism needs to be “sorted out”.
Scale and scope matter of course, but if the BBC is not independent it is no good to anyone.