This is, readers will know, a Public Service Sketch, and as part of its educational remit, I’d like to offer a Word of the Day. A “kakistocracy” is a government by the very worst people. It might be a useful word to have in your back pocket this week.
Anyway, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries was in Parliament on Monday. She was launching the first stage of what we’re told is “Operation Red Meat”, which is part of “Operation Save Big Dog”, which should not in any way be confused with “Operation Totally Stuffed”.
Operation Red Meat is about saving Boris Johnson’s job by offering Tory MPs a vast list of vote-winning policies. We don’t know who drew the list up, but one of the items on it is apparently “give Gavin Williamson a knighthood”, which may be a clue.
Dorries’ contribution was going to be to defund the BBC. Our national broadcaster is hated by a certain kind of Conservative, specifically the kind who think that newsreaders actually make the news happen. On this logic, if only Huw Edwards didn’t keep reading out things that Boris Johnson had said about parties, the prime minister wouldn’t keep having to say new, contradictory things.
It’s possible that Dorries thinks this herself. She certainly seemed a little confused about how news happens. Her statement began, as so many government statements do on a Monday, with a telling-off from Speaker Lindsay Hoyle about the fact that its contents had been in the Sunday papers. Dorries offered an unapology. “I refused every invitation to the media both yesterday and today,” she assured him. Although no interviews were needed, given that she put the story out on her Twitter feed.
Most of the damage done to Dorries was done by Dorries
With this amazing piece of doublethink out of the way, she set about her business. The BBC licence fee would be frozen, she said, to help deal with the rising cost of living. More than that, she said, the BBC needed to shape up. “In the last few months, I’ve made it clear that the BBC needs to address issues around impartiality and groupthink,” she said. Which might have come better if it hadn’t been from someone whose loyalty to Johnson is so slavish that it got her kicked out of a Brexiteer WhatsApp Group.
We were living in a new media landscape, Dorries explained. “A family in Cumbria can stream five different movies in five different rooms at any one time,” she explained. We should try to identify this family quickly, because if some of Dorries’s colleagues get their way, this will be the only house where any of us can watch anything.
However at this point Operation Red Meat went a touch vegan. On Sunday, Dorries had confidently tweeted that “this licence fee announcement will be the last.” On Monday, that was watered down to “it’s time to start asking questions”. The abolition of the licence fee had become a review.
For Labour, Lucy Powell was scathing. The government had found a £14 pound saving after imposing £3,000 of tax increases, she said.
Emma Lewell-Buck asked why Dorries had talked in her tweet about elderly people being threatened with prison sentences over TV licences, when weeks earlier she’d told parliament that didn’t happen any more.
“The honourable lady drew a direct link between two different parts of my tweet when there is no direct link,” Dorries snapped back, as though her social media comments had the length and sophistication of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, rather than a 280-character limit. For clarity, the two different parts of the tweet that Lewell-Buck had so deviously linked were the first and second sentences.
But most of the damage done to Dorries was done by Dorries. Tory MPs wanted to know what her alternative plan for funding the BBC was, and all she could offer them was a shrug. “I’m not impressed by either her words or the proposal,” Peter Bottomley said.
Dorries flailed her hands around, and tried to look breezy. It did not inspire confidence. “The decision for the future funding model is for discussion,” she said. “Some of us may not even be here by 2028.” Some, on the basis of this performance, may be moving jobs much sooner than that.
Steve Brine tried to help. He asked what her “instincts” were about how the BBC should be funded. It was the softest of underarm balls, tossed gently outside off stump. Dorries smashed it into her own wicket.
“My instincts are: let’s start a discussion,” she said. She didn’t know. She had come to parliament to announce a policy, but had forgotten to bring the policy with her.
The strange thing is that, at one level, Dorries was right. As John Whittingdale pointed out, young people don’t see the point in buying a license. In an age of tablets and laptops, taxing one type of screen isn’t going to last. But to announce on a Sunday that you’re abolishing the license fee only to admit in Parliament on Monday that you have no idea how to replace it is a bad look.
John Redwood asked why, if the problem was people being threatened with the courts, the government didn’t decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee. “It’s something we’re looking at,” Dorries replied.
After 40 minutes, she was backpedalling hard. The BBC was “a great British institution”. It was impossible to imagine life without it. It had a “vital role”. She had personally relied on it while living abroad. She was not abolishing the licence fee. “There is no policy. We are just starting discussion and debate.”
Still, some of them liked it. Jonathan Gullis, a hyper-loyal Tory who won his seat in 2019, was enthusiastic. “It’s time that the BBC, like the Labour party, get out of the metropolitan bubble and spend some time in Stoke on Trent,” he said. He should be careful what he wishes for. As he spoke, a poll dropped suggesting that Labour campaigners might profit from paying a visit to his constituency.
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