As preparation for a paper I’m doing next year I bought one of the greatest documentary series ever made, The World at War. Comprehensive, accurate and haunting, the programme gripped the whole nation with its gaze into the near past when it first broadcast in 1973. With the BBC under mounting criticism, something came to mind. I once got talking about the series with a friend, as historians do. He was shocked when I told him that the BBC didn’t make The World at War. It was made by Thames Television, a long-gone constituent of the ITV network. This brilliant example of British television was immediately and psychologically paired with the BBC. It was practically an involuntary reaction. ITV surely couldn’t have made a programme like this; it must have been the BBC, by default.
John Whittingdale, a man whose big priority is to deregulate gambling machines in motorway services, is going to war with the BBC over charter renewal. As with anything cultural, subjectivity has waded into the debate on the very existence and principles of our national broadcaster. The Tories are determined to limit the corporation’s influence on the nation and hand over increasing power to its commercial, and largely right-wing, Conservative-aligned rivals. To do so, it will be our uncultured secretary of state and his cohort of what Lord Patten described as “grave diggers” defining what is “to inform, educate, and entertain.”
We’ve already heard stirrings of discontent over the BBC’s supposed ‘ratings chasing’, effectively translated from Tory doublespeak as ‘populist entertaining.’ Programmes like EastEnders, The Voice, Strictly Come Dancing, and god-forbid, the whole of BBC Three, are the bastions of everything popular, and consequently vulgar. The Conservatives will admit that they believe that the BBC needs to exist, but it will need to provide programming that is none of these, programming that is, effectively, unpopular.
The case of the BBC demonstrates how blind to irony and hypocrisy the Conservative Party has become. The Licence Fee has been compared to a poll tax, or should that be a Community Charge? In a 2001 speech to the party conference, Whittingdale remarked, “to liberalise markets, to cut taxes and to deregulate. That is the Conservative approach.” Yet, quite frankly, it is only where it suits them.
Arts funding stretches to the highbrow ballet and the royal opera while cuts are made to local drama groups for working-class children. The taxpayer will be forced to prop up the highbrow, not the niche shows that the BBC has long delivered brilliantly, never mind the popular. Imagine Songs of Praise reformatted on ITV and sponsored by Toyota, starring Simon Cowell judging battling church choirs. Of course Radio 3 will continue as normal – whatever will your traditionalist MP listen to on the way to Parliament? Surely not that pop played on Classic FM.
Just like our railways, and our energy companies, our BBC will be asset-stripped. The popular bits sold off and commercialised, and the unprofitable rump subsidised by the taxpayer. BBC Worldwide will be privatised. The organisation, which brings a massive amount of revenue into BBC coffers, reducing the Licence Fee and providing Britain with a global media presence comparable to Fox which we so lack, will be sold off to the BBC’s rivals. The American media machine can crowd out their global rivals thanks to their economy of scale. Networks like ITV cannot dream of taking on global conglomerates like Walt Disney or NBC Universal, quite often as they’re already part owned by them. Like BBC Books, which was swallowed up by the German-owned Bertelsmann, the BBC’s global presence will be carved up, probably to foreign owners.
The BBC has been criticised for being too good at what it’s doing and pushing its competitors out of the market, and being simultaneously outmoded and making the wrong programmes – which argument is the Culture Secretary trying to make? His excuses are shown for what they are, a smokescreen for Conservative ideology, and god-forbid anyone gets in their way. Like boundary reform, fox hunting and the European Union, they’ll just kick their reformist can down the road until they finally get what they want.