BY WILL ALLEN
BBC logo on the broadcaster's building in Leeds. The corporation appears to be in difficulties after repeated Tory cuts.
On Sunday 16 January, the Conservative government fronted by a vindictive Culture Secretary announced its most overt attempt yet to impose detrimental changes on another vital public service – the BBC. In announcing the end of the licence fee model of funding, in tandem with huge short-term funding freezes, the party has set up a debate over the corporation’s future.
This is of course a debate that many in the party are all too happy to see the corporation struggle with, even collapse into. The conspicuously timed briefing of this announcement highlights erratic attempts Downing Street are undertaking to try to divert backbencher attention from a culture of partying, lying and political rule breaking.
The attack on the BBC, the first in a suite of ‘red meat policies’, seeks to undermine the corporation’s ability to operate in the near and long-term future. In the short-term Nadine Dorries, Culture Secretary, has stated the licence fee (the main infusion of funding) will be frozen for two years. With inflation gripping the country, the freeze until 2024 amounts to a harsh funding cut – one estimate places the loss in funding at an eyewatering £2 billion.
This resigns the corporation to begin yet another round of significant cuts to services, content output, and staff. These new cuts will begin before the effects of previous 2017-2022 cuts of £1 billion are truly felt – weakening its ability to compete in a volatile media landscape. After a decade of cuts this new announcement is enough to sufficiently weaken the BBC to the point it begins to starve of necessary funding.
Dorries also pushed into new territory, announcing that in 2027 the licence fee funding model will be axed. Smashing the licence fee model to pieces means the BBC will have to draw up and then renegotiate a new model of funding (potentially with this aggressive Johnson administration in a second term.) Many in the corporation have been planning for the end of the licence fee, but the unexpected timing of this announcement means the corporation will have to land on one of several models sooner than it had expected.
Struggle is nothing new for the BBC. It exists in an increasingly impossible situation, pushing impartial fact-based news in an age of deep polarisation. Universality is its offer – the corporation is constantly pushing news out to the whole country, while private media has driven down into ever more specific audiences that are ideologically cohesive. In short, the BBC can never become this partisan model. The recent two decades have been hard in this regard, but it has been coupled with other significant challenges. Successive Conservative governments haven’t just cut the size of the BBC by 30%, the party has grown to staunchly oppose the corporation. Additionally, the corporation has created its own headaches, slavishly oversubscribing to due impartiality to the point it becomes counterproductive. This has brought harsh criticism – even its regulator directed it to “have the confidence to be bolder in its approach to due impartiality.”
Undeniably the greatest pressure now comes from a radicalised Conservative party. A decade ago, opposition to the BBC existed at the fringe of the party. From here figures tried to make noise about the “very existence” of the BBC while the party largely ignored them. Still, these figures continued to lay the foundations for the obsessive policing of the corporation’s content seen today.
By 2019 a radical transformation had taken place, many hostile figures, including Dominic Cummings, sat at the heart of the party wielding power. The policy direction of the party has become undeniably hostile to the BBC’s fact-based coverage of the news, as it embraced a leader who disregards fact for fiction on a regular basis. With Johnson’s people in power, the party has sought to dissolve the BBC’s detached fact-led form and mould the corporation to its explicit needs – disregarding fact. Johnson backed Paul Dacre, a loudmouth critic of the corporation’s impartial form, to chair the media regulator OFCOM. After a calamitous vetting process Dacre dropped out, nevertheless a hostile party remains committed to punishing the corporation for reporting fact-led news. Sunday’s announcement proves this.
Various new funding models that include the Conservative party favourites – a Netflix style subscription model, and part privatisation – would fundamentally alter the BBC’s mission to deliver invaluable public goods. The backbencher revered subscription service model aims to place the BBC into the streaming wars that have arrived (and arguably left the corporation behind). The party insists it should adopt this wildly popular model as it works for Netflix and Spotify. Yet, the current BBC stretches across free-to-air TV and radio that cannot be pushed behind the paywall they say would secure its future. It is also important to recognise Netflix is a wildly false equivalence, the BBC is a provider of public goods across a myriad of services from education to news.
Secondly, there is the tried and tested Conservative method of placing the corporation on the chopping block and butchering it for privatisation. Paywalls could now encircle iPlayer allowing it to become the dreamed of streaming service, while the many radio stations would be sliced up and swallowed by an eager free market. What would be left behind after privatisation is the remains of a once-public BBC (predominantly its unprofitable operations) that could receive drastically reduced funding. The much-reduced public service would appease those who have long sought to see the BBC defunded. Simultaneously it allows those remains to be subjected to the whims of direct government funding (and the strings that come attached to any funding.)
If anything, the pandemic built out the BBC’s case to remain publicly funded – its reach expanded, driving record audiences to its evening news programmes and website. It provided children’s education at a time no other body could and on a scale no other organisation could. Meanwhile, its overwhelming size helped position it against the wildfire of misinformation that increasingly grips our democracy. It offers something unique then, a defence for the country’s increasingly strained democracy. The announcement by Dorries is a hammer blow, not just to the BBC, but the country which is strengthened by its public offerings.
Dorries’s announcement doesn’t put any thought into fixing a BBC in need of renewal and neither will it make it future facing. Its objective is merely to make Johnson popular with backbenchers and party members, who hold his future in their hands. Removing the entire funding model before settling on a replacement model smacks as yet another cruel attempt to dissuade the corporation from biting the hand that feeds it.
Image - Flickr (Tim Loudon)