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The strange death of the BBC

US President Franklyn D. Roosevelt coined the idea that the first 100 days of a government provided the best opportunity to introduce the greatest reforms.  In the years since, it has become a truism; one that Johnson’s Tories will be fully aware of.  It is instructive then that with the Brexit Withdrawal Act out of the way, one of the first domestic acts of the new government has been to declare war on the BBC.

It began with the Johnson/Cummings edict barring cabinet ministers from appearing on BBC flagship news programmes such as Radio 4’s Today.  More recently, it has moved on to the question of the licence fee – the flat-rate tax used to fund the BBC.  The government has begun a consultation with a presumption in favour of decriminalising non-payment.  This is hard to argue against given the disproportionate way in which criminalisation impacts the poor – and especially impoverished women.  As Natalie Gil at Refinery 29 explained last year:

“Paying the fee may be simple – it takes minutes via the TV Licensing website – but with eight million people in working households now in poverty, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the annual expense is out of many people’s reach and as a flat-rate fee, the TV licence is a bigger burden on poorer individuals and families than others…

“Nearly three quarters (72%) of people prosecuted for TV licence evasion in 2017 (137,913 in total) were women, with the crime accounting for 30% of all female prosecutions (compared to 4% of male prosecutions) – making it the most common offence for which women were prosecuted, according to government figures. In addition, a greater proportion of women (94%) than men (92%) were convicted.”

The proposed alternatives are either a civil penalty – similar to London’s congestion charge – or civil debt – similar to non-payment of a utility bill.  However, the government is fully aware of the BBC’s objection that without the threat of a criminal sanction – a fine of up to £1,000 – the organisation anticipates a £160 million loss in income as a result of evasion and the additional cost of civil enforcement.  In practice, it is extremely difficult for the BBC to prove that someone may or may not have been required to have a TV licence.  As the consultation paper notes:

“…there can be some confusion over which activities require a TV licence and which do not, especially when such services are offered on the same platform. For example, a TV licence is not required for accessing on-demand content on ITVHub, All4 or My5; but, a licence is required for watching live (or almost live) content on these platforms. Similarly, a TV licence is now required for watching live sporting events on Amazon Prime, despite a TV licence remaining unnecessary for on-demand programmes on the same platform. In cases where individuals were unaware they needed a TV licence…”

In an age in which people – and especially the under-40s – access TV on smartphones, tablets and laptops as much as on a conventional TV set, neither the congestion charge nor the utility model fully reflects the BBC’s likely predicament.  The congestion charge is enforceable because a camera system linked to vehicle registration data is able to record a driver’s journey in and out of the congestion zone.  The default is that the owner of the recorded registration plate is responsible for the charge.  Similarly, public utilities can refer to the meter reading to assess electricity, gas and water use; with the default assumption that the homeowner or tenant is responsible for the bill.  The BBC has no straightforward evidential bases for bringing a civil action against someone accused of watching TV without a licence (at considerable expense they could access computer/phone logs provided they could first take out an injunction to obtain them and to prevent the owner from erasing them).

Decriminalising the licence fee is the one thing government can do to rein in the BBC immediately.  Further changes will only be possible when the Royal Charter which provides the legal basis for the BBC comes up for renewal between 2022 and 2027.  Nevertheless, the government has made clear its intention to do away with the licence fee altogether in favour of a subscription fee.  As Rory Tingle at the Mail Online reports:

“Downing Street has signalled a new onslaught on the BBC – with a threat to scrap the television licence fee and turn it into a subscription service.  A senior source said the broadcaster could be forced to sell off most of its radio stations in a ‘massive pruning back’ of its activities…

“The Government is already consulting on proposals to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee, and ministers have suggested it could be abolished altogether when the BBC’s charter comes up for renewal in 2027.”

Although support for a subscription model is couched in the language of modern communications and the blurring of the traditional lines between television, cable phone packages and the internet, there is a strong suggestion of political animosity between the Johnson government and the BBC management.  As Tingle hints:

“The attack will be seen as a further escalation of the hostilities between No 10 and the corporation, with many Tories still angry at its coverage of last year’s general election.”

This, no doubt, will come as a surprise to many on the left, who cannot have avoided the BBC anti-Labour bias in the run up to December’s election.  Morgan Daniels at Counterfire provides just a few examples:

“Twice now in the current general election period, the broadcaster has ‘accidentally’ edited footage so as to improve the image of Boris Johnson. On Tuesday, meanwhile, it offered wall-to-wall coverage of some unsupported allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party by the Prime Minister’s friend, Chief Rabbi Mirvis. This day of smears culminated with Andrew Neil boorishly interviewing Jeremy Corbyn – an encounter that provided plenty of frontpage fodder for the Wednesday papers. 

“The BBC, then, is not so much reporting on the news as manipulating and creating it. This has been going on for as long as Corbyn has led Labour, as when Laura Kuenssberg arranged for Stephen Doughty’s resignation as a shadow minister live on Daily Politics in 2016. Can we really say that the BBC is providing us with a public service?”

In the weeks after this article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg was to get into even more hot water when she appeared to break election law by disclosing a big swing to the Tories in postal voting.  By then, however, it was becoming apparent that Labour was not going to repeat the last minute surge that deprived Theresa May of a majority in 2017.

It seems remarkable that the most right wing UK government in living memory should have turned on a broadcaster which appeared to bend over backward to help it secure its parliamentary majority.  Nevertheless, the hostility from the political right is both real and misunderstood by both the political left and the BBC; and for much the same reason.  Paul Goodman at Conservative Home describes the way in which the political right perceives BBC bias:

“On news bias, the problem is not party political.  It is, rather, political in a wider sense: the EU referendum’s aftermath has shown BBC news up as being too London-centric, too southern, too middle class, too Remainy, too University-educated – and, broadly speaking, too Woke.

To swoop from the general on the particular, this site identified one howler last week: the claim that Sinn Fein is not a populist party.

On wider bias, this worldview seeps, more pervasively, into comedy and drama.  That said, the phenomenon reaches much wider than the corporation.  Geoff Norcott is making a living out of being one of the very few identifiable right-of-centre comedians.

Interestingly, the BBC itself acknowledges the problem.  Read Tony Hall’s New Year speech to its staff, and you will unearth what is almost a parody of the Government’s own preoccupations – getting out of London; gaining a global reach.

The diversity section of his talk has all the usual cliches: gender representation, BAME, people with disabilities.  What about white working class non-graduates?”

For years the BBC got away with the claim that since they were being criticised by both left and right, they must in fact be reflecting the broad centre ground of British politics.  That was before the Political Compass introduced the notion that politics can be multi-polar.  That is, political opponents may be talking at right angles to each other rather than at opposite ends of the same single left v right debate.

The Political Compass analysis introduced just two poles – an economic left v right and an authoritarian v libertarian – but this is just one of many ways in which the analysis could be done.  Post-2016 we might also want to include a nationalist v globalist pole.  Indeed, a social conservative v social liberal pole would be more relevant today; and would help to explain why it is the apparent beneficiaries of BBC bias who are now bent upon destroying it.

Far from holding the centre ground between left and right, the BBC has consistently supported one corner of a four-quarter square:

Far from reflecting the broad sweep of British political opinion, the BBC’s attempts at balancing what it perceived as left and right resulted in its support for the viewpoint of a metropolitan affluent liberal class from among whose ranks its own managers, producers, editors and “talent” were drawn.  This was the infamous “Westminster Village” – the social class thought bubble around the London-based state departments, political party managers, media editors and journalists, and corporate (especially finance and tech) lobbyists – which momentarily reflected majority opinion during the early Blair years.  Its prejudices formed the BBC’s “Overton Window” which provided the boundary between acceptable and deplorable public discourse.

Although the political debate was heated, it seldom ventured outside the economic and social liberal boundaries self-imposed by the BBC.  As a consequence, the BBC audience shrank.  This was particularly true for the under-40s; whose access to alternative sources of news means that they are less trusting of the BBC.  Ofcom, the BBC’s regulator, has also raised concerns about the organisation no longer representing the views of the majority of the audience living beyond London and the Southeast. 

The process has accelerated as a consequence of the 2008 crash and the long depression which followed.  Between 1995 and 2005 a mountain of unsustainable debt, propped up by millions of barrels of unsustainable North Sea oil was sufficient to maintain/purchase majority support for the neoliberal consensus.  So that prior to the financial crash in 2008, most of the public opposition to New Labour came from metropolitan liberals concerned about the trend toward authoritarianism in various pieces of social control and anti-terror legislation introduced by the Blairites.  The threat to Blairite Labour in 2010 came not from the Faragist right, but from disgruntled metropolitan liberals deserting to a LibDem party which claimed to be more socially liberal than New Labour.

After 2008 – and particularly following the election of the Tory/LibDem coalition in 2010 – the neoliberal illusion was shattered.  Gordon Brown – not George Osborne – chose to bail out the banks with taxes and spending cuts levied on ordinary people.  Osborne, of course, was more than happy to double down on the package of austerity cuts that Labour had already embarked upon.  But in doing so, he inadvertently undermined the neoliberal consensus.  Far from “all being in it together,” Osborne cemented a new 80:20 economy into place in which four fifths of the people saw their standard of living decline or at best stagnate while a privileged metropolitan affluent class based in London and the top-tier university towns continued to reap the benefits of a privatised economy and a highly liberal social culture.

While the BBC rallied support behind Tory cuts to public services and social security, beyond the M25, a new political coalition was taking shape.  Some would – wrongly and foolishly – label it fascism.  Nationalist populism is a more appropriate term, reflecting an embryonic economic nationalism (that harks back to an era when local economies provided good stable employment) in which the economy (in theory) should to work for the people rather than the other way around.  Although at odds over where the state should intervene in the economy, nationalist populism (because it needs working class electoral support) shares with Corbyn’s Labour a desire for public investment and for greater control over/nationalisation of critical infrastructure.  It is social conservatism which is the bigger divide between the nationalist populist right and the metropolitan left.

The role of the ex-industrial working class in the rise of nationalist populism has been the subject of considerable analysis since the Brexit referendum.  Contrary to the BBC-amplified metropolitan liberal assertion that this group didn’t understand the question and had experienced “buyer’s remorse” in the aftermath of the referendum, the European election and general election results in 2019 demonstrated that nothing had changed.  It was, in fact, the surprise surge behind Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2017 that proved to be the anomaly; and something of a double edged sword.  As Mike Wayne at Counterstrike explains:

““[T]he relative victory for the Corbyn project in 2017 helped sow the seeds for defeat in 2019. It gave a new tactical advantage to the liberal currents within the anti-Corbyn leadership inside the PLP to force a change in the party’s Parliamentary manoeuvrings to frustrate any Brexit deal. Previously May’s small majority made that unlikely or extremely difficult. Now blocking Brexit became very feasible…

“The tragedy for Labour was the strength of liberalism inside the membership and not just inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. In electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader twice, the party membership had definitively rejected the Blairite neoliberal policy agenda… But on the EU the membership remained in thrall, as did many in the trade unions, to the liberal appeal of the EU.”

The 2019 election results demonstrated that a significant proportion of the ex-industrial working class continues to be more favourably disposed to the social conservatism of the political right than to the economic interventionism of the political left.  As Paul Embery at UnHerd remarked in the aftermath of Labour’s 2019 defeat:

“So there we have it. It turns out that the British working-class was not, in the end, willing to throw its weight behind a London-centric, youth-obsessed, middle-class party that preached the gospels of liberal cosmopolitanism and class war…

“We sounded the alarm bells again earlier this year when, in the local and European elections, Labour haemorrhaged support in several working-class communities across the north and Midlands.

“But the woke liberals and Toytown revolutionaries who now dominate the party didn’t listen to us. They truly thought that ‘one more heave’ would bring victory… In doing so, they made a major miscalculation: they failed to grasp that working-class voters desire something more than just economic security; they want cultural security too.

“They want politicians to respect their way of life, and their sense of place and belonging; to elevate real-world concepts such as work, family and community over nebulous constructs like ‘diversity’, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusivity’. By immersing itself in the destructive creed of identity politics and championing policies such as open borders, Labour placed itself on a completely different wavelength to millions across provincial Britain without whose support it simply could not win power. In the end, Labour was losing a cultural war that it didn’t even realise it was fighting.”

The same might be said of the BBC; which also finds itself in the firing line of a culture war which it believed itself to stand above.  What it took to be the cultural and political “centre ground” turned out to be a fast fracturing neoliberal consensus that was well past its sell-by date.

The ex-industrial working class, however, did not – and could not – bring about Brexit or the 2019 election results.  The reason so much energy has been spent by academics and journalists analysing the voting behaviour of this group is that it does not fit with the neoliberal assumptions about how the working class ought to behave.  The neoliberal consensus – and the European Union – was supposed to provide a series of employment protections such as the minimum wage, health and safety regulations and equalities legislation.  In exchange, the working class was supposed to accept “flexibility” and a more punitive social security system.  What few in the relatively affluent suburbs of the metropolitan cities understood was that “flexibility” was little more than a euphemism for abuse; that the social security system provided a massive reserve army of under-paid zero-hours and gig-economy workers; and that those employment protections all  too often turned out to be impossible to enforce anyway.  This might have been (barely) tolerable in the years before the crash.  After 2008 – and especially after the Tory/LibDem austerity cuts – the desire for more democratic control and for any change that offered the possibility of improvement became irresistible.  Corbyn appeared to offer this in 2017; by 2019 not so much.

Johnson’s election victory, and Brexit before it, however, came from an unlikely coalition between the over-studied ex-industrial working class and a less discussed non-metropolitan middle class.  As Simon Kuper at the Financial Times explains, this class has have driven a nationalist populist revolt around the world:

“Here’s a character rarely mentioned in the contemporary political debate. He (he’s usually a man) lives in a suburb or small town. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon, and he worked his way up, which wasn’t always fun. Now he owns his home and earns above-average income. He is scathing of bigcity elites with posh accents who got easy lives handed to them. In short, he’s a middle-class antielitist. You find him across the western world: in New Jersey and Long Island, around the English south-east, the Milan agglomeration and in the quiet suburbs of Rotterdam. The comfortably off populist voter is the main force behind Trump, Brexit and Italy’s Lega. Yet he’s largely ignored, while the conversation about populism revolves around an entirely different figure: the impoverished former factory worker…

“This man’s advance has been slow. He has never been invited into the fast lane of life: the top universities, the biggest firms, the major corporations. He feels, with some justification, that his exclusion has been unfair — based on his accent, schooling, clothes and unfamiliarity with trendy conversational topics. He realised years ago that so-called meritocracy is a fraud. Big-city professors, journalists and civil servants with fancy degrees — people who strongly resemble politicians such as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Miliband — seem to him manifestly full of shit. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s right-hand man, captured this sentiment when he evoked ‘Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers …’ Yet whenever our man has got anywhere near these frauds, they have snubbed him.”

What people like this shared with the ex-industrial working class was the elitist distain shown to them by almost everyone within the “Westminster Bubble.”  To a Labour Party which – despite its claims to “diversity” – is almost entirely (96%) white, largely middle class, primarily southeast/London-based and middle aged (the average age is 53); these were the chavs – the ill-educated masses who could be taken for granted.  To the BBC they were simply the “wrong kind of people” – always the subject matter of (usually negative) news but never permitted to speak for themselves.

There is hubris in the fact that while the BBC was busy vilifying (Corbyn’s) Labour during last years’ election campaign, it will now depend upon the Labour Party and its supporter base to defend it from the Tory assault.  It is a big ask.  There is no reason for the political left to offer unconditional support to an elitist organisation whose 98 year history from the general strike, via the miners’ strike and the poll tax protests to overblown concerns about anti-Semitism, has been marked by a trail of anti-Labour, anti-left propaganda.  Indeed, in the end it is this long history that might persuade the Johnson government to spare the BBC in some form.  After all, a tame quasi-independent propagandist that can be brought into line via threats to its funding might prove to be a safer bet than a private organisation which might follow the US pattern in which 5 out of the 6 main TV channels actively supports the neoliberal left.

As you made it to the end…

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