Operation Red Meat
The stimulus for this was the revelation in The Sunday Times (16 January) of Operation Red Meat, a series of popular policy announcements to woo disillusioned MPs and voters and boost support for Boris Johnson’s beleaguered government.
It was the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, who suggested Johnson needed to “throw red meat at his backbenchers”. Top billing went to the decision to freeze the BBC licence fee for two years, an announcement conveniently given a front-page in the same day’s Mail in Sunday. Dorries also tweeted that the fee settlement running to 2027 would be “the last”.
These announcements appeared in the media before the BBC was informed about them, but the tweet by Dorries provoked strong responses. In Cabinet, ministers reacted against her tweeting about the end of the licence fee before there had been any discussion, and she was rebuked by the Speaker for making policy announcements before presenting them to parliament.
Damaging the BBC
Two examples give us an insight into the mindset of people who want to damage the BBC. Charles Moore, ardent Thatcherite, former Daily Telegraph editor and author of a three-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher, wrote a column on 18 January headlined ‘The BBC has been acting like the Fox News of the Left’ over its coverage of Downing Street parties. He argued that the BBC needed to show “super-impartiality”, whatever that might mean. But to compare BBC news coverage to the partisan output of Fox News is absurd.
Another was from former culture secretary John Whittingdale, interviewed on 17 January by Cathy Newman on Channel 4. He confirmed that the BBC licence fee freeze would inevitably cause cuts to programmes as a result of the £285m shortfall, though he balanced this with a few homilies of his ‘support’ for the BBC. This from the man who pushed through the 2015 licence fee settlement, which has meant the BBC had to undertake a five-year programme to deliver targeted savings of over £1bn a year up to 2021.
The actual real cut to BBC funding under Conservative governments between 2010 and 2019 has been a staggering 30 percent.
Government control of the BBC
It is the height of hypocrisy for the BBC bashers to then highlight the irrelevance of the BBC as streaming services like Netflix become ever more dominant.
Firstly, those who have overseen the slow strangling of the BBC’s finances know that crippling it financially is easy. For all the talk about the BBC’s independence, it is the government control over the licence fee that makes it vulnerable.
Dorries knows this. She has openly linked the cut to the corporation’s “biased” news coverage. Newly appointed, she said, “Nick Robinson has cost the BBC a lot of money” after Robinson interrupted the PM’s evasive word torrent during an interview. Dorries has also said the BBC’s “pervasive, left-leaning mindset” is “inextricably linked” to its funding level.
Secondly, the cuts to BBC funding are more damaging because they take place when the costs of making television programmes are soaring as a result of the huge increase in film and television production by streaming services like Netflix and Disney Plus. They are able to access staggering amounts of money – in 2022 Disney has said it will spend $33bn on content (including sports rights), while Netflix is expected to spend $22bn and WarnerMedia $18bn.
But this is unsustainable. People will not pay for six or seven streaming services and some will go out of business within ten years.
Debating the future of the BBC starts now
In the BBC’s centenary year, it’s worth stressing that the organisation has had to reshape and reinvent itself time and time again. And some of its plans have been blocked by governments and regulators, notably its proposal in 2009 to launch the online streaming service Kangaroo because it posed “too much of a threat to competition”.
So, as the attacks on the BBC intensify we need to be clear that attempts to suggest the broadcaster is redundant in the age of Netflix are foolish and ill-informed. As NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet points out:
“The attempt to compare the BBC with Netflix or any other streaming channel is fatuous. These US-owned, cash-rich behemoths do not provide news and current affairs nor programming reflecting the lives of all of us in Britain.
“They are not accountable or committed to employing a diverse workforce and they care little about the scope and breadth of public service broadcasting.”
Many of the policies being proposed for the BBC, like shifting the licence fee to subscription, won’t work. Even Whittingdale realises that. But it is clear that there does need to be a different way to fund the BBC when debate over the next licence fee renewal in 2027 starts. We need to start the discussion on what that should be now.
It really is up to those of us who see through the partisan political game being played by the culture secretary to make our voices heard.