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Conservatives and the Corporation

10 July 2015

The Government has mounted another attack on the BBC, says Paul Vallely

WHY doesn’t the Government force energy companies to pay the winter fuel allowance? Or make Stagecoach pay for pensioner bus passes? Or tell Amazon it has to cough up for public libraries? Or force the Sports Council to subside the cost of Manchester United season tickets for the elderly?

A salvo of derisive questions on social media followed this week’s announcement that George Osborne was requiring the BBC to find the cash for free TV licences for those aged over 75 in fulfilment of a pledge made, not by the BBC, but by the nation’s politicians.

Broadcasting grandees offered more direct criticisms. The former BBC chairman Sir Christopher Bland said it was "the worst form of dodgy Whitehall accounting", which "rather subtly and unattractively" drew the BBC closer to becoming an arm of government. A former director general, Lord Birt, said it was a "deeply shocking . . . breach of the BBC’s independence". The media commentator Steve Hewlett condemned it as a gangster tactic, which he described as: "Give us the money or the kid gets it."

More alarming is the lack of due process. Mr Osborne imposed the change in a backroom deal without any consultation of public or Parliament. When that happened in 2010, the tactic was roundly condemned by the then chairman of the Culture Select Committee, John Whittingdale: the man who is now enforcing the deal in his new job as Culture Secretary in the teeth of his own previous recommendations.

What’s worse is that it feels part of a strategy by the Conservatives to emasculate the BBC, whose journalism is a gold standard. Against it the printed press, with its shameless promotion of the interests of its owners, often looks shoddy and seedy. Newspapers routinely put the commercial and political agenda of their proprietors before the good of wider society.

Senior ministers deny any such plot. But the true agenda has been laid bare by the succession of Tory backbenchers who have stood up to attack the BBC in the run-up to the renewal of its royal charter and licence-fee funding deal in 2016.

Perhaps their most bizarre claim is that the BBC is a waste of licence-payers’ money. I have to declare an interest — my wife works for the BBC — but the idea that ten TV channels, 17 national radio and 40 local radio stations, plus the online news, sport and weather service, is not good value at 40p a day is risible.

That is less than ten per cent of what I pay for my sports-inflated cable package courtesy of Rupert Murdoch — whose newspapers, like others who see the BBC as an online rival, are in the vanguard of the attacks on the BBC. It is not hard to see the Tory assault on the BBC as a bone tossed to the right-wing papers that backed the party at the General Election.

The BBC has faults. But it is the envy of the world for its fearless, principled, independent scrutiny of people in power. We fail to stand up and defend it at our national peril.

 

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor of Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.

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