THE politics is heating up over the renewal of the BBC’s royal charter, which expires at the end of the year. And while Conservative politicians routinely genuflect towards only wanting to improve the BBC, their behind-the-hand mutterings often suggest the opposite.
Take the reports that the Prime Minister wants to replace the BBC Trust with a body mainly chosen by the Government. Or the idea that the BBC will be forced to disclose the salaries of its stars, making it easy for rivals to poach them by offering just a wee bit more. Or the plan that the BBC should be prevented from running its best shows in prime time, when commercial stations run their top offerings. Some even say that it should not run its main news at 10 p.m., because ITV does the same.
That is not all. The Chancellor, George Osborne, has previously accused the BBC website of having “imperial” ambitions. The Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, has denounced the licence fee as “worse than the poll tax”. He recently told young Conservatives that the prospect of the BBC’’s ceasing to exist was “occasionally a tempting prospect”.
All governments have a love-hate relationship with the media. Politicians rely on them to get their message across, but dislike penetrating journalistic scrutiny. But it seems that the Conservatives have a particular problem with the BBC.
THIS is for three reasons. Some Tories wear ideological blinkers, insisting that the private sector is always better than the public; so the BBC should be privatised or curbed. So it was rather inconvenient when the BBC trounced commercial TV at the BAFTAs this week.
A second group insists that the BBC is run by liberal Lefties with an inherent anti-Tory bias. Many on the Labour Left, of course, feel the opposite, and complain with equal vehemence of the negative lens placed over the words and actions of Jeremy Corbyn.
But set aside politicians’ prejudices on both sides. A substantial content analysis of BBC coverage conducted by Cardiff University in 2013 showed that, whichever party was in power, Conservatives got more air time. Business representatives get 19 times more coverage than trade unions; and coverage of the financial crisis was dominated by stockbrokers, investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, and other City voices.
And yet, despite this, BBC coverage is more balanced than that of media dominated by proprietors with overtly Tory sympathies. That brings us to the third reason. Some Conservatives simply want to support the newspapers that support them. They want the BBC website curbed because they see it as competition to the websites of the Tory press. They want its broadcasting restricted because the smaller and weaker the BBC is, the more money their ally Rupert Murdoch can make, and the more his influence will increase.
The problem for the Tories is that the vast majority of the British public love the BBC. Full-frontal attacks would be politically risky. So attempts to undermine and constrain the BBC are being conducted obliquely and indirectly.
They are no less dangerous for that. Voters need to make sure that they tell their MPs, particularly Conservative ones, how deeply unhappy the nation is with the Government’s bullying manoeuvrings.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.