Over the past seven years, there has been one director general of the BBC and eight culture secretaries. Oliver Dowden MP, who was given the job in last week’s reshuffle, can, at the very least, hope to attend one Wimbledon final before moving on from his cabinet post. But this time the new director general may not get much longer.
The coming year will prove just how independent of government the BBC really is as it faces a series of huge challenges. Claire Enders tells me the conditions facing the BBC are the worst in her 35 years as a media analyst. “I wouldn’t wish the DG job on my worst enemy.”
Apocalyptic statements about its future have been made before, of course, but these challenges include a government that appears obsessed with, as a “senior Downing Street street aide” told the Sunday Times today, “whacking” the BBC, and a landscape that is undermining the principle of universal public service broadcasting.
In January, Tony Hall announced he was stepping down as director general of the BBC. In the first real test of the royal charter agreement – effectively the BBC’s constitution – reached in 2016, chairman David Clementi gets to appoint Hall’s replacement before his own four-year term runs out in February 2021.
Under the terms of the charter, the chairman himself is appointed by the government, which could mean that Clementi finds he isn’t reappointed if his preferred candidate does not meet the approval of No 10. Support for the BBC director general, both within and without, would normally protect the office holder from such overt political machinations. But these are not normal times.
Applications for the role of DG have to be in by 11 March, a month that coincides with the first letters warning over-75s that they will need to start paying their licence fees. By 1 April, responses are also due in to the review on decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee.
So, by this summer, the BBC faces the possibility of mass evasion by licence fee refuseniks (though the government is unlikely to change its mandatory status until 2027) and a slew of stories focused on the numbers of poor and unwell old people having to find £154.50 to watch the telly. This will provide great copy for the newspapers, which have for years waged war on the BBC for providing the news and entertainment they want to sell.
Make no mistake, the government’s complaints against the BBC not only follow Trump’s “fake news” strategy – in which politicians realise they don’t have to answer questions if they convince enough supporters all criticism is based on lies by a biased media – but also decades of complaint from the print media that the BBC creates unfair competition. It is a government, after all, led by a man who, for decades, worked for the Telegraph, owned by billionaires who make no secret of their dislike of taxation.
Witness the splash by Downing Street’s favoured political editor, Tim Shipman, which trumpeted the government’s plans to “change the face of British broadcasting”, by chopping all but radios 3 and 4 and lots of TV stations too. But the print media has long blamed the BBC for its own woes, despite evidence that things are just as bad in countries with no state broadcaster. Read Nicky Morgan’s piece in the Daily Mail two weeks ago in which she not only praised the paper for “shining the spotlight” on the “unfair and disproportionate” licence fee sanction, but compared the BBC with the defunct Blockbuster video chain, saying it needed to adapt to the modern streaming age. Furious BBC insiders retorted that when it first tried to launch a video-on-demand service (when Netflix was still pushing DVDs through letterboxes) the BBC was denied on competition grounds. “They tell us we’ve got to remain relevant and then when we try, they say we’re killing commercial competition.”
She also pointed out that “more children now recognise the names Netflix and YouTube than they do the BBC”, which is possibly true. She didn’t point out that a premium streaming subscription of £144 a year only pays for entertainment, not the news or current affairs, or dedicated children’s channels or BBC Bitesize or the World Service.
These priorities have long been been known as the “Rupert Murdoch agenda” after the Sunday Times boss’s long-running complaints against the state broadcaster – hence the delight when it was reported that his daughter Elisabeth was considering a run at the DG job, which she denied. One report in the i newspaper called her a “compromise” candidate given the fact that Downing Street really wanted Rebekah Brooks, the head of Murdoch’s UK print and radio business, to do the job.
Back to the very real challenges facing the BBC. Decriminalisation is a tricky issue for the BBC. Even though just five people went to prison for non-payment in 2018, that still feels like five too many. Yet, the whole output of the BBC – from EastEnders to Radio 3 – is based on the assumption that more or less everyone will pay. If those assumptions are unlikely to be held by young people who can’t remember the last BBC programme they watched or listened to, then a debate needs to be had about what kind of BBC the UK needs.
The BBC fightback to date has consisted of David Clementi using a speech to highlight the threat to children’s services and indeed the World Service, which costs some £240m a year. Making the argument that a UK out of the world’s largest trading bloc may need all the soft power it can get, he said: “No other brand resonates around the world like the BBC … a diminished BBC is a weakened United Kingdom.”
Other European countries either fund their public service broadcasters directly from government, or through a payroll tax on workers. Would this be any more satisfactory? Netflix-style subscriptions are mentioned all the time but somehow miss the technical challenges that you can’t gate radio and television services when some 40% of BBC-consuming homes use Freeview.
Dowden, who calls himself “the member of parliament for Albert Square” – because his constituency contains the Elstree studios where EastEnders, among many others, is filmed – was previously in charge of the “digital transformation” of government. He has been described as an “advocate of utilising technological solutions for public services”. Which could be handy. Then again with John Whittingdale, who has argued for years that the licence fee is obsolete, back as a minister of state, perhaps Dowden will leave the BBC to him.
Whatever the government and its new culture minister decide, the BBC needs to work out not only how to adapt to digital technologies but also to build back the trust which has, for most of its history, protected it against political interference.
It may be a cliche but, in times of war, winning the battle for hearts and minds is more important than ever. And a nation as divided as the UK since the referendum has increasingly turned on its national broadcaster, despite polls that still say it is more trusted than any other news source.
The BBC is not perfect and needs to change but, faced with a government whose idea of taking back control seems to extend to the control of communication, the need to protect it is urgent. The next director general could well be the last one that matters.