The Spectator

Free the BBC

No government can be trusted to run the BBC

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If anyone needed convincing of the BBC’s pathological self-importance, proof has been provided by the corporation’s news coverage of its own reorganisation. On Tuesday, a day on which back-bench Labour MPs threatened a revolt against David Blunkett’s proposed law against incitement to religious hatred, and Hamid Karzai was inaugurated as Afghanistan’s first democratically elected president, the BBC’s reporters struggled to cover any story beyond their own building. The World at One, Radio Four’s lunchtime news broadcast, devoted 26 minutes of its half-hour running time to the BBC’s proposal to make 2,900 of its staff redundant — and would no doubt have devoted the full 30 minutes to the story had not Mark Thompson, the corporation’s director-general, mercifully declined to be interviewed alongside an assortment of trade unionists, producers and junior ministers.

This magazine has itself been no stranger to the news pages in recent weeks, but we are not in the habit of clearing out every page bar the crossword in order to comment on staff changes in accounts and a minor reorganisation of the stationery cupboard. That, however, would be the equivalent of the BBC’s self-obsession. Its television channels, supposedly free of advertisements, devote several minutes between programmes for plugs for its own shows, websites and spin-off products. An item on Breakfast news the other day was a thinly disguised advertisement for a new BBC children’s show. And so it goes on, 24 hours a day.

The crux of this week’s coverage is that the BBC proposes to cut 2,900 jobs and to put more money into ‘quality’ programmes. This is not so much a news story as a plea to the government to renew the BBC’s charter and to maintain the licence fee — which at £121 a year now costs some households more than did the hated poll tax. We have heard it all before. Every time the BBC charter comes up for renewal, a few sitcoms and game shows are ditched in favour of worthy documentaries about dinosaurs. Then, as soon as the charter has been renewed, the dinosaurs waddle off screen to be replaced by more sitcoms, game shows and in recent times wall-to-wall home improvement shows.

There is a case for public service broadcasting, but it certainly doesn’t include programmes about a hysterical Darren and Smanfa from Basildon putting a few quid on the value of their house by doing up their bathroom. Commercial television is perfectly competent at producing this kind of show. If any other kind of state monolith used mountains of taxpayer’s cash to compete so directly with private industry, the EU’s monopoly-busters would be on to it in an instant.

It isn’t just television producers who are guilty of abusing their monopoly position. Earlier this year the government had to order the BBC to close some of its websites which were using licence-fee-payers’ cash to muscle commercial operators out of the market. There is little doubt that left to its own devices the BBC would happily bleed television owners dry in an attempt to construct a monopoly of all cultural and media activities in Britain. Its order to the BBC to close websites apart, the government has been woefully slow to tackle the competition issues raised by an expansive BBC. It is not hard to wonder why. Much though ministers love to complain about BBC ‘bias’ they love having a broadcasting industry dominated by a state monolith because it suits their propaganda needs.

When the BBC’s coverage goes against the government, as it did over the dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Prime Minister has the comfort of knowing that ultimately he is the employer of the BBC’s chairman and director-general. Just look at how the BBC’s leadership crumbled after the Hutton report. Would it have done so had the BBC been independent? This magazine was a staunch defender of the BBC, its editors and reporters during the Hutton inquiry. We remain convinced of the worth of Andrew Gilligan’s story. But we have come to the conclusion that it will be impossible for BBC reporters to continue to undertake serious investigative reporting unless they are freed from their political masters.

This is not a party-political point. The Thatcher and Major governments were just as guilty of lambasting the BBC at every opportunity, yet protecting it from break-up and privatisation at a time when almost every other nationalised industry was undergoing this process. We wouldn’t trust any government to run the BBC. The concept of a state broadcasting service is something we associate with dictatorship — just look at how coup leaders invariably make the TV station their next target after the presidential palace.

Any cut in the number of BBC bureaucrats would be welcome, but this week’s announcement is but a gesture. For the good of democracy, as well as fairness for the taxpayer, the corporation should be broken up, and a smaller residuum dedicated to genuine public-service broadcasting, with a smaller licence fee. Now that would be a story worthy of dominating the lunchtime news.