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Artillery Row

Thoughts on the BBC: Reflections of a conservative historian

Jeremy Black ponders the place of the BBC

The partisan character of the BBC, the so-called national broadcaster (as if we needed such an authoritarian concept), is well-established, although there is much to be said for driving home the message, as Douglas Murray recently did in the Spectator. For the Conservatives, it is important to address this very serious issue, but also to reach out to a broader constituency of concerns and interests that should be mobilised in order to underline that the remedy is not also partisan.

The point about obsolescence is well-ventilated. To many of the young, the BBC is irrelevant, and, indeed, the extent to which they are taxed (through the Licence Fee) to support it is part of the intergenerational unfairness that is a modish idea at present. There is also the broader obsolescence of a public service broadcaster supported at great cost in the highly diverse media landscape of the present, one that is likely to become even more diverse. The partisanship of the BBC makes it unsuited to the political character of Britain, but the organisational obsolescence is differently serious. Moreover, whereas much of British society has experienced change over the last thirty years, the BBC has seen relatively little. Indeed, it is unclear why this should be the case.

Incidentally, the argument that Conservatives conserve not change, an idea that has been made on behalf of the BBC, underplays the extent to which, from the ministry of William Pitt the Younger on, Tory/Conservative governments had been distinguished from their more Whiggish radical ‘leftwing’ rivals not by being opposed to change but by the character of the reform process they endorse. On ‘the Right,’ the ultras opposed to significant change have regularly been beaten.

So we have the BBC claiming a special dispensation, one that is bizarre on a number of headings. Why important branches of government that have a significant impact on the life of many should have to adapt to different tasks, roles, and funding, but not the BBC, is unclear. This point is also linked to the BBC taking a fair amount of money out of consumer expenditure. The taxation is socially regressive, was mentioned frequently on the doorstep during canvassing in the recent election, and is important across the country, not least in the ‘Red Wall’ seats. A modest proposal might be for a significant reduction in the Licence Fee, one that would be particularly welcome to those on lower incomes, and a measure that would still leave the BBC with a lot of money. For the sake of clarity possibly a £100 Licence Fee is the first solution.

That of course still leaves the BBC with its partisan autonomy, which should encourage discussion of more radical alternatives. One is to fund the services necessarily deserving public support (generally local news and television, national news, the World Service) through Culture, Thoughts on the BBC 2 Media and Sport but by means of a competitive process in which, as already with the television weather reports, different providers can bid.

There will of course be cultural assumptions and institutional practices that are offended by these suggestions, but they do not in themselves have such moral weight that they should preclude discussion about alternatives. That the BBC has the ability to propagate its self-interest as part of its active propaganda underlines the difficulties that reformers face, but the cost to every household is such that there is no excuse for indulging the conceit and complacency of the BBC panjandrums.

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