The only merit that some of us divine in the coronavirus is that it could impede the British government’s plans to castrate the BBC. Facing two crises, Brexit and the virus, even Boris Johnson and his Svengali adviser Dominic Cummings may struggle to find the time and political capital to turn their scalpels upon public-service broadcasting.
The rest of the world is baffled by their eagerness to do so. Respect for Britain has diminished, but never for its voice on the airwaves. For almost a century, the BBC has seemed to represent all the virtues to which the British aspire: fairness, wit, decency, civilized values, and courage in upholding them.
“The Corp,” as its employees knew it, has played a large part in my own life. First my grandfather and, later, my father became radio voices between the wars. I made my own, debut transmission in 1948: my father carried me to the microphone, aged three, to join a weekly broadcast he made to North America. I did not then articulate much beyond “Max wants potty,” but later I became a documentary-television researcher, and then a current-affairs reporter, latterly a pretty regular contributor.
Like most of my generation, I did not merely like the BBC; I revered it, even when I was falsifying my overseas expenses at its expense. So what has now happened to make it plausible that a Tory government should detonate a mine under it? Some ministers and powerful elements within Downing Street appear to wish to abolish the current $204 annual TV license fee, compulsory for all British owners of a TV set and generating almost $5 billion annually, and replace it with a voluntary subscription. John Whittingdale, one of those charged with implementing reform, said that he thinks this course politically impossible. But the government is already proposing to lift the criminal sanction for nonpayment of the license fee.
The BBC has seemed to represent all the virtues to which the British aspire: fairness, wit, decency, civilized values, and courage in upholding them.
This would, overnight, devastate the corporation, which employs 22,000 people. Many of the young are wedded to streaming services. While a drastically slimmed BBC might survive, its critical news operations would become a shell.
Tories traditionally hate the BBC as a bastion of liberal values, which it undoubtedly is. I would guess that no more than, say, 1 in 20 of its broadcasters favor Brexit, while almost all are impassioned supporters of gay marriage, higher taxation, and minority rights. The corporation recently pledged to spend $124 million on increasing racial diversification, which may be admirable but wins no friends among Conservatives.
Moreover, the immensely powerful Murdoch press has been lobbying for years to abolish the BBC license fee, arguing—inter alia—that it offers unfair competition to commercial operators. In the looming battle about public broadcasting, only The Guardian and the Financial Times are likely to plead the BBC’s case, while The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, and the Daily Mail back drastic change.
Among the government’s most extravagant threats, it is touting as the next head of Ofcom, Britain’s broadcasting regulatory body, former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, a veteran BBC-basher who would not recognize the concept of fairness in an identity parade.
Even the BBC’s admirers should concede, however, that it has done its own cause little good by embracing the extremes of woke culture. This has alienated many natural supporters and viewers. Wherever I travel in Britain, I am struck by the hostility toward the corporation expressed by elderly white, middle-class people. They will miss it terribly when it is gone. For now, however, they have become its enemies, and are thus willing to acquiesce in the government’s proposed moves against it.
I still shamelessly love the BBC, but I acknowledge the need for reform. It has become far too big and bureaucratic. When I was a star-struck young researcher at Lime Grove Studios back in 1964, its staff club at lunchtime was crowded not only with an impressive number of drunks but also with broadcasters and creators. Today, it is instead dominated by administrators and compliance commissars.
Moreover, the immensely powerful Murdoch press has been lobbying for years to abolish the BBC license fee.
One night 20 years ago, I was dining with my close friend Sir Christopher Bland, then BBC chairman. I said that although I had had much more than my own due in life, I regretted not having served as director-general of the Corp. Christopher responded with an accustomed bluntness: “You’re wrong. You would have hated it, and been very bad at it. You think the job is about being a super-editor. Not anymore. It is about presiding at five-hour meetings to discuss whether we employ enough disabled members of minority communities.”
The BBC has been responsible for a host of the greatest TV and radio programs of modern times. Think of Fawlty Towers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Office, Sherlock, Pride and Prejudice, Yes Minister, The Hour, I’m Alan Partridge, Blue Planet, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and, more recently, Fleabag and The Thick of It. Its World Service provides a lifeline to truth for countless millions who live in societies systemically denied access to it by their rulers.
The corporation would today be much less vulnerable to its Tory enemies if it focused on its creative and news-gathering functions and was less committed to well-intentioned, but distracting, social engineering. Two of the ablest, younger historical-documentary presenters I know can secure no commissions from today’s BBC, apparently because they are male, white, and upper-middle-class.
Its World Service provides a lifeline to truth for countless millions who live in societies systemically denied access to it by their rulers.
This perception, indeed ethos, damages the corporation, though it is not entirely its own fault. Perversely, the corporation’s sometimes desperate outreach to minorities and the young—the people who least watch and listen to its work—reflects its formal remit from government, as part of the BBC’s most recent 2017 royal charter. Here is a significant strand in the tangled web in which it is caught.
The corporation’s virtues, especially as a standard-bearer for Britain abroad, vastly outweigh its deficiencies. If its new director general, Tim Davie, is wise, which his early pronouncements suggest he may be, he will commit to a substantial downsizing, and strive to win back the endorsement of some of the BBC’s elderly supporters, by checking liberal bias. Emily Maitlis, presenter of the network’s flagship current-affairs program, Newsnight, holds the same critical view of Boris Johnson as I do myself. But she was notably ill-advised, given her role, to deliver back in May an on-camera rant denouncing the prime minister’s principal adviser, Dominic Cummings. This confirmed every Conservative prejudice about the corporation.
The BBC needs to change, and to shrink, in the new world of broadcasting, streaming, and the Internet. But if it shows a commitment to reform, it is entitled to demand that the government withdraw its threat to abolish the license fee, its lifeblood. At a time when Britain’s standing in the world has fallen far, following an apparent loss of competence as well as a retreat toward isolation, it needs to cherish the great institutions it possesses rather than destroy them.
I would never cite the BBC’s great past as a rationale for its future, any more than I would urge that Britain should build more Spitfires. Nostalgia is my country’s besetting vice, a decisive force in the tragedy of Brexit. But the corporation continues to showcase a wealth of creativity and news-gathering resources unmatched in the world.
If the Jacobins in Downing Street execute their most extreme threats and cut off the corporation’s guaranteed revenue stream, Rupert Murdoch will welcome the opportunities for his own broadcasting interests, perhaps launch a Fox News lookalike in Britain. But the cause of justice and truth will suffer grievously. Should the BBC vanish, we shall all be poorer, because nowhere in the world will anything like it ever be created again.
Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor of The Telegraph