Cabinet papers released under the 30-year rule give interesting food for thought about botched reform, Margaret Thatcher, the BBC and the insidious power of the Left.
They are deeply relevant at the beginning of 2015. The Government has kicked into touch talk of reform of the BBC licence fee until after the general election, and the long shadow of Maggie’s failed attempts to change it is still being felt.
One of the places the Left has won a seemingly permanent victory is that the BBC is still seen by many as a national treasure, and has resisted almost all attempts to change it, especially with regard to funding.
This dates back to the Peacock Committee , which was set up by the Thatcher government in 1985, with the radical aim investigating whether the BBC should take advertising. But it ended up setting the licence fee in concrete to the present day.
It is now clear from the papers released under the 30-year rule that Maggie wanted root-and-branch reform of the BBC from day one after her election victory of 1979. On her shopping list were sharply reduced costs (the staff was 29,000 and rising), the smashing of the power of the broadcasting trade unions – in an era when they operated restrictive practices that cost both ITV and the BBC tens of millions of pounds – and other ways of funding than the licence fee, which she saw as a regressive tax.
What’s emerged from the Cabinet papers is that she was severely constrained by her most senior and trusted advisers. Willie Whitelaw and her press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham still saw the Corporation as a treasured national institution.
With the benefit of hindsight, their stance was ludicrous. It was precisely during this period (as I witnessed at first hand from my then role inside the BBC) that the Left insidiously took over Corporation journalism. Almost to a man and woman, the internal atmosphere was anti-Thatcher. Behind the scenes and increasingly on screen (as the Panorama programme Maggie Militant Tendency in 1984 graphically showed) it was abundantly clear. Sir Bernard (and no doubt Whitelaw) were, in effect, defending a BBC from a different age.
Maggie persevered, however, and after the miner’s strike, was especially determined to take on and reform the television trade unions.
So it was that in 1985, she appointed Sir Alan Peacock – whom she believed was an ‘independent’ economist – to chair a committee of inquiry into BBC funding in the wider context of changes in the broadcasting industry. What she wanted was simple: the BBC to take advertising in some obvious marketplace activities such as Radios 1 and 2. She thought this would introduce commercial disciplines and instincts into the Corporation. Without of a shadow of doubt, she was right in her intuitive beliefs.
But she was to be bitterly disappointed. Also appointed to the committee as deputy chairman were Sir Alastair Hetherington, the former editor of the Guardian, along with Judith Chalmers, the BBC travel presenter.
Why did Maggie allow this? A Guardianista at the top decision-making table? That remains baffling to this day. Perhaps she naively thought that the case for advertising was so overwhelming that there was no alternative. Whatever the reason, it was, in retrospect, one of her most crass mistakes.
It was obvious from day one that a figure such as Sir Alastair would defend to the ditches the status quo at the BBC, and with his superior knowledge of the media, run rings round Sir Alan. He did so – to the extent that the committee eventually not only recommended the licence fee should stay exactly as it was, but also that it should henceforward be index-linked, and that the idea of advertising on the BBC should be dropped for good.
At the same time – the wily Hetherington also persuaded the committee to turn its fire on ITV. Bluntly, they said, ITV was making too much money and that therefore, in future, it should both have to pay more to the Treasury through an auction of the licences that would require bidders to set their own tax rates at what they thought they could afford.
Maggie – sources at the time said – was incandescent with rage over the Peacock BBC findings, but concluded that bringing tougher financial disciplines to ITV was a reasonable consolation prize, because it would lead to the end of union restrictive practices. It did. Within months, my former company TV-am took on the technical broadcast unions over their excesses – and won.
But the BBC stayed there, stronger than ever because now it had guaranteed income. And so, 30 years on, we are reaping the whirlwind with a Corporation that is bloated, biased to the Left in almost every word it utters and a massive dead hand on the media landscape in that its privileged, gilded-cage existence thwarts genuine media innovation and change. ITV has been relegated for all of the 30 years to a second-best existence.
Will the next government right one of Maggie’s biggest mistakes? I am not holding my breath.