‘Tories go to war on the BBC’, barked The Telegraph’s front page this morning. It’s ‘payback time’ for Auntie, The Sun gloated in a leader. New culture secretary John Whittingdale is a known critic of the licence fee and the right wing press is duly making hay.
Whittingdale’s predecessor and new business secretary Sajid Javid denied the new government had ‘gone to war’ this morning, but there is no doubt it will take a harder line in next year’s negotiation over the BBC’s charter renewal than if the Lib Dems had also still been in power.
The former head of the Culture, Media & Sport Committee has previously said the licence fee is ‘worse than the poll tax’ and ‘unsustainable’ in the long-term, although he did say he expects it to survive until the end of the next charter period in 2026. That’s not to say, though, that the £145.50 payment won’t be cut if Whittingdale decides to impose some Conservative austerity on a famously bloated organisation.
However hard they decide to go in, the Tories, who were pretty livid over what they saw as bias against them in the election campaign, should be careful what they wish for. For a start, there’s no guarantee a privately owned replacement would be more amenable (even if it was owned by one of their mates – friends can be fickle after all). Ditto a slimmed down Auntie. Revenge for revenge’s sake is obviously pointless.
The Beeb also does a great job at turning out stellar content (as well as some admittedly awful stuff too). Yes, ITV, Sky et al also do good (and bad) stuff, but odds are a private BBC would produce far less than it does now. And, as PA Consulting's Colm Reilly argued yesterday, We need to move beyond the simplistic view of ‘industry great, government bad’.
Most importantly for UK plc, the BBC is one of its great brands. That’s good for companies, which can piggyback off the glow, and for government, which needs to hang onto that soft power as our hard economic and military influence becomes ever less mighty.
That’s not to say the Beeb and the licence fee doesn’t need reform. As many Tories have been at pains to point out, the world of broadcasting is being up-ended by the internet. But if it wants to keep Britain great, the government should avoid any vindictiveness and help preserve the BBC in the changing media landscape.