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Why the BBC is like Greece: when love is not enough

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Posted by Tim Gopsill Editor of Free Press

“LOVE IT or Lose It” is the title of the broadcasting unions’ online campaign to stop the Tories devastating the BBC. It’s a great title, but it has drawbacks. For one thing, it’s been rather overtaken by events, with the BBC’s sudden if not altogether surprising capitulation to George Osborne’s demands to cut its real income, bringing the burgeoning campaign to maintain public broadcasting to an abrupt halt before it could get going.

The second is that unfortunately loving the BBC is not enough. Everyone knows that love doesn’t pay the bills, but the licence fee won’t pay the BBC’s either. By fixing a hasty deal with Tories the BBC has yet again closed down the debate on financing public broadcasting, but it’s a public issue that has got to be discussed.

The licence fee has escaped by the skin of its teeth this time around, because the government was more concerned immediately to get the £750 million cost of free TV licences for the over-75s off the balance sheet.

BBC bosses have been heaving public sighs of relief all week, as if they had pulled a fast one past the Chancellor, just by surviving for another ten years. They may have the extra £750 million – a sum that will rise rapidly in the geriatric future – to pay out every year, but they’ve got £150 million back (from the end of top-slicing) and they might save more than £200 million from the extension of liability to pay the licence fee to online as well as TV set viewing. “De-criminalising” non-payment of the fee, which could cost more millions, appears to have been put on hold. And the fee itself – frozen solid for the last five years – will now generously be allowed to creep up at the measly CPI inflation rate.

With the other extra costs loaded onto the BBC over the last five years, the real value is probably about 70 per cent of its 2010 level.  And there it will stay. The best that Director-General Tony Hall can make of this, in all his triumphant utterances, has been that the settlement is “cash flat”.

Declaring that it is content with its meagre lot, and demanding no recompense for its losses, signify that the BBC accepts the contentions of its enemies that it has to be subject to belt-tightening and austerity, that any expansion of its services constitutes unfair competition to its commercial rivals and it must be reined in.

But it is only these industry enemies, with their political wing in government and their propagandists in the right wing press, that make these claims. For all the propaganda, the public think the BBC is just fine. They watch and listen as avidly as ever. Unfortunately the BBC itself, with its perpetual capitulation to government demands, allows no chance for this support to express itself.

The BBC is behaving like the Greek government: it has a dire economic position and a weak political one in the face of its oppressors, despite a strong popular mandate which it refuses to exploit. By rushing to grab the first offer it has not just prevented the building a public movement to defend and improve it; it has pre-empted too the early discussion of a fairer and more secure funding mechanism to replace the licence fee. They have got away with retaining it this time but in ten years’ time they certainly won’t. After another period of Tory rule the forces for pulling down public broadcasting are only likely to be stronger; a context that will make the establishment of a new levy to fund it even harder.

The CPBF is arguing for a household levy, payable with the council tax, which could be graded by the council tax bands – say from £100 to £200 a year – to accord with household wealth. It should be less susceptible to government pressure, with a chance to avoid the dreaded decennial decision time when the BBC’s enemies come together to take pot shots at it and watch it collapse.

Any idea that the attacks will desist now that it has surrendered is fanciful, just as it is with Greece. Scenting blood the Tories, like the European financial institutions, will put the boot in when it comes to the particulars of the Charter renewal, expected in a government Green paper shortly (subsequently published on 16 July, more at: ).

Already they have targeted popular BBC1 programmes under the guise, Prime Minister David Cameron says, of “pushing up quality” – that is to say, breaking up its mass audience. The aim to remove the popular support and confine the BBC to a highbrow “public service” ghetto is made so much easier by its refusal to exploit its popularity.

Next will come the website, the biggest and most impressive in Britain; unfair competition to local papers, apparently, according to the Big Media chains that own them. They’ve sacked half their journalists and can’t maintain half-decent ones themselves.

Then the BBC will be told to correct its supposed elitist left-wing news coverage, which is imperceptible to the naked eye, but such quibbles are no problem. It is blatantly idiotic to accuse the BBC at the same time of being populist and right-wing in its entertainment programming and elitist and right-wing in its news and current affairs; but what does that matter when there is nothing coming back?

In response the BBC will retreat into its vast bureaucracy and skew its news even further to the right. Having virtually single-handedly secured an increase in defence spending, as welfare spending falls, with its persistent “Make it 2%” campaign, it will now put Nigel Farage on Question Time every week, instead of just most weeks, and have Katie Hopkins guest on Thought for the Day.

DATELINE: 14 July, 2015


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