King George VI addresses the people of Britain and the British Empire live over BBC news on Sunday 3rd September 1939, the day of Britain's declaration of war on Nazi Germany. During his speech the king asked his subjects to "stand calm and firm and united in this time of trial". Picture Credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Return to Reith 

Why conservatives need to do more than bash the Beebs

Artillery Row

In a week when our Prime Minister has been cast wailing into the outer darkness (along with his party’s poll numbers) it may come as a surprise to see the Tories mount an all-out assault on the BBC. But in fact it was predictable. Although Dominic Cummings is gone (and quietly leaking stories from the shadows) his attitude to the media lives on. The Murdoch press is to be tossed regular hunks of red meat whilst the BBC is to be ridiculed and menaced into submission. Bad news stories are a sign not that the government is going wrong, but that the BBC needs one of its regular beatings — until morale improves. 

As beatings go the proposed plans may be the most severe thrashing yet, one the BBC may not get up from this time. Culture secretary Nadine Dorries announced that the BBC would see a freeze of the license fee (which in a period of high inflation represents a substantial real terms cut) over the coming years, and the full abolition of the license fee in 2027. As yet no alternative funding model has been proposed, with Dorries remarking only that the government has six years to find one. 

Since the 1980s the Tories have been as radically progressive a party as Labour

The ambiguity too, is predictable. A BBC surviving on rations and uncertain where its next dinner will come from is strongly disincentivised from challenging the government, and nothing could be more useful to the Conservative party at a time when it’s in crisis and electoral defeat finally seems possible. 

Conservative hostility to the BBC is reflective of the fact that whilst British newspapers generally lean right, broadcast media is dominated by a left liberal establishment. Many “small-c conservatives” rightly point to the extreme social liberal agenda pushed not just subtly on news shows, but far more overtly and aggressively in entertainment and educational programming. Why, goes a typical right wing argument, should taxpayers have to subsidise a radical political agenda a majority disagree with? 

The issue is that “small-c conservatives” are some of the most regularly duped voters out there, and nobody has conned them more thoroughly and comprehensively than the modern “Conservative” party (the lie begins with the name). Since the 1980s the Tories have been as radically progressive a party as Labour, and in many respects more so; pushing not only a polite but fervent social liberalism, but also an aggressive economic and political liberalism that has torn up settled communities, the established norms of British political life, and the many moral and legal restraints on individuals and private companies that were inherited from over a thousand years of British history. 

It was, after all, Margaret Thatcher’s government which attempted to abolish Sunday Trading Laws, it was John Major’s government which finally passed them, and it was Labour MPs who opposed it, alongside genuinely conservative Tory rebels. 

On issue after issue, dainty morsels of apparent social conservatism are dangled in front of the noses of the public by the Conservative party, only for voters to discover that they are actually getting a neoliberal agenda. Brexit was sold as a communitarian, protectionist, low migration future for the country, and it was that political offer which mobilised more voters than any other democratic event in British history. But the people who promised it to voters never had any intention of actually delivering. The Conservative party believes in social liberalism, free trade and a globally mobile workforce; for the majority of them Brexit was just a matter of more closely binding the UK to America, and tearing up European regulation that blocked the way for things like genetic modification and unrestrained financial capitalism. 

Likewise, the eternal Tory war on the BBC gives the appearance of a party taking on woke broadcast Blairites intent on implementing a Gramscian agenda, whilst something very different is actually going on. In a period of liberal hegemony it’s a given that major establishment institutions from the BBC to the European community would be controlled by liberals. What different opportunistic liberal factions will do is try and persuade naïve conservatives that if they only smash this or that liberal-dominated body, then the whole edifice will crumble and a Burkean merry England will come roaring back. 

But destroying the established order in order to produce utopian outcomes is not, and never can be, a conservative politics, nor is it truly “radical” unless we mean a radicalism of the elites — a bourgeois revolution. Ultimately liberals don’t believe in institutions — corporate bodies with their own customs, ethical codes and inherited wisdom — they believe instead in ever-expanding rules and processes which discard the actual people and communities that implement and make useful laws and strictures. 

Having a national broadcaster is a patriotic and ethical statement

The result of a hollowed out or abolished BBC is hardly a matter of speculation — the gap will be filled by private companies that are as or more committed to the liberal agenda of those who staff the BBC, but without the mitigating influence of a public service ethos. Even the Times and the Telegraph are full of pieces praising polygamy, adultery and (unlike the BBC) conspicuous consumption. Particularly concerning is the loss of advertising-free television for children — it’s hard to overemphasise the moral and psychological value of a space for children free of the pressure to consume and indulge, and instead devoted to the cultivation of ethics, imagination and knowledge. 

Would a commercial broadcaster have given rise to programmes like Songs of Praise, Gardeners’ World or Call the Midwife? Perhaps, but the British media landscape is indelibly marked and shaped by the history and fact of a public broadcaster with a strong idealistic ethos. The BBC is also — and almost uniquely — a home of serious religious broadcasting and journalism, and though this too has declined over the years, right wing critics of the BBC seem to have little interest in the fate of Sunday programming. 

You can find conservatives today, even plenty of the small-c variety, willing to throw over the Church of England, the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Union, before we even get onto such favoured targets as the BBC, local government and environmentalism. It’s just not clear to me what inherited British institution the modern right is actually in favour of preserving. 

Of course the BBC needs drastic reform — it has fragmented as it chases audiences and takes on the values of commercial broadcasting; it has become a vehicle for a radical social agenda; it has dumbed down; and yes the license fee in its current form is no longer a rational or sustainable means of funding our public broadcaster. However, the solution to this is not to accelerate these tendencies to the point of destruction, but rather to return to Reith. Having a national broadcaster is a patriotic and ethical statement: it says that we are a national community, with common experiences and a collective voice.

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