When the Murdoch press screams headlines such as BBC stars keep pay deals secret after government climbdown or The Sun refers in its usual way to humiliating U-turns, one suspects Westminster might have actually made a sensible decision. We see it often enough in my world, that of education: and now it’s happened with the BBC.
For months, if not years, politicians have been talking tough about the Beeb: they hate it. This dislike stems from the politician’s instinctive distrust of any person or organisation that dares pick away at their deceptions and vanities to lay bare the truth underneath.
Tony Blair and his ministers were incensed when the BBC started digging around the dodgy dossier used as an excuse to invade Iraq. The Blair government terrified the Corporation’s spineless governors into parting company with Director General Greg Dyke. Later events proved that there had been no weapons of mass destruction, and views of Blair’s moral certainty in his mission to invade Iraq are now sceptical.
Yet has any politician stood up and said that the BBC was right? No. And they won’t.
The Right is prone to voicing suspicions of leftward leanings within the BBC. Blair’s was the most centrist Labour government to have held power, so perhaps those out on the party’s Left feel that he had the same reservations.
Their hostility to the BBC leads governments to treat it badly: and the press is quick to jump on their bandwagon. The Sunday Times last week accused the Beeb of seeking to impose a “stealth tax” when it proposed cutting the free TV licence for over-75s where someone in the house is working. It was another rod for Murdoch to beat Lord Hall with: but the BBC is labouring under the burden of having those licences dumped on its balance sheet by government. Smart move by government: stealth tax, delivered via the BBC.
Today’s Times reports Tory MPs as being disappointed by the decision to “back away from plans to bring rules on BBC pay into line with the rest of the public sector”.
What a stupid line. Part of the BBC’s wide remit is to provide entertainment. Entertainers command huge fees: though I have no brief for keeping secret the salaries of top TV performers, the BBC cannot be required to enter into public debate as to whether one newsreader is worth more than another sports commentator, or whether a comedian or actor is worth a particular sum. Those are management decisions, for management to take.
Fortunately, even within the ranks of government itself some sane voices are raised to point out the obvious. It is a dangerous step to allow ministers any control at all of our public broadcasting service. The BBC, for all its mistakes, histrionics and – certainly in the past – overpaid, self-indulgent executives, remains the best broadcaster in the world. Mercifully it remains (largely) independent of both government and commercial funders.
Yet it sheds lustre upon this country and, ironically, on its government. Around the world, people and nations who suffer media entirely controlled by authoritarian governments see the BBC’s World Service (let alone its TV broadcasts) as a beacon of light, as the sole reliable provider of unbiased truth.
Some parliamentary loonies reckoned it was time to suggest that the BBC was somehow playing unfairly by allowing its popular programme (one I hate) Strictly Come Dancing to compete with ITV’s big Saturday night attractions: this from the party that believes competition solves all problems!
It was not a U-turn, then: nor a climb-down. Even the barmier voices in the Tory party have finally realised that in the BBC we have a jewel, albeit one that’s rough at the edges. But even a jewel can be tarnished and smashed, which they were in danger of doing.
They may starve it of funds, alas. They’ll mess with the management and governance (neither have been great): but the essence of the BBC will remain intact in the heart of the wreckage.
For that I think we must be grateful.