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Johnson’s lost appetite for a battle with the BBC

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‘IS BORIS about to wimp out on the BBC licence fee?’ I asked at TCW on 11 February. In the mere three weeks since, the answer has hardened from ‘Hmmm, maybe’ to ‘Almost certainly’.

At that time, the original proposal to decriminalise non-payment of the fee and possibly scrap the licence altogether was already downgraded to merely modifying the licence model (but not before 2027), and only a ‘consultation’ on decriminalisation. But it’s reasonable to wonder why the Government needs its own ‘consultation’ at all.  The work is already done.

Only four months ago, the Institute of Economic Affairs published its policy paper New Vision: Liberating the BBC from the licence fee. Its main recommendations for transforming the corporation into a subscriber-owned mutual are summarised here. 

Johnson promotes himself as a great fan of ‘oven-ready’ solutions. He could heat up and serve this one immediately, limited only by the time it would take to pass legislation terminating the current BBC Charter and allowing it a reasonable, but not excessive, period to transition to its new funding model.

Popular dissatisfaction with the BBC and support for drastic reform of its funding haven’t subsided. On 23 February a ComRes poll found 50 per cent saying the BBC is poor value for money, and support for abolishing the licence fee at 61 per cent. Around 200,000 people cancelled their TV licence in the year to November 2019. 

Superficially then, it’s hard to see why, given such public support, Johnson seems intent on burying the issue. In football terms, he has the ball at his feet, an open goal gaping in front of him, and the crowd roaring him on. Has he –

1. panicked at first contact with the enemy?; or

2. gone native after institutional capture by a BBC-Whitehall pincer movement?; or 

3. never had any genuine intention of even decriminalising non-payment, never mind abolition, anyway?

Or is something more profound, even darker and more cynical, at work?

In The Fake News Factory: Tales from BBC-Land  (which David Keighley reviewed here yesterday), about the corporation’s bias and its abuse of the power it derives from its uniquely privileged position and jealously-guarded protected funding, author David Sedgwick suggests a possible answer.

It’s that Johnson’s pre- and post-election sabre-rattling about the BBC has much more to do with personal annoyance at its intrusion into his private life, most notably during the last campaign, than it has to do with any principles-driven political conviction that its current coercive funding model must be scrapped because it is illiberal and authoritarian.

Brexit apart, suggests Sedgwick, as a metropolitan-‘progressive’ conservative, Johnson politically-speaking is largely in sync with the Left-‘liberal’, corporatist, state-interventionist, Green, socio-culturally woke, institutional groupthink of the BBC, on which, given its dominant market position, the political class has to rely heavily to get its message across. And that, with this worldview also predominant in the current Conservative Party, little can be expected of it in terms of taking on the BBC behemoth.

Recent developments certainly seem to bear this out.

In Johnson’s recent Cabinet and Government reshuffle, the post of Culture and Media Secretary, carrying responsibility for the BBC, went as predicted to ‘rising star’ Oliver Dowden, Remainer, Cameroon, ex-SpAd and party insider. With at least one careerist eye no doubt fixed on promotion, the prospect of his rocking the BBC boat looks remote. 

Appointed as a Minister of State alongside him at the DCMS was none other than former Culture and Media Secretary John Whittingdale, whose hedging, non-committal remarks about the BBC licence fee to Talk Radio‘s Mike Graham were described in my 11 February TCW article. Whittingdale was also Johnson’s now-fiancée Carrie Symonds’s boss when she was a DCMS SpAd. Cosy, isn’t it?

To complete the hat-trick, elected as chairman of the Commons Select Committee to scrutinise the DCMS was Tory MP Julian Knight, whose first contribution to the licence fee debate was to suggest stiffer fines to replace imprisonment for non-payment. Given that convicted ‘licence-fee dodgers’ are disproportionately young, low-income females, who – unsurprisingly with the licence fee being a regressive tax – cite financial hardship as their reason, bigger fines would merely increase the number of young, poor women dragged into court. Which would of course blight their employment prospects. Abolishing the regressive tax instead, or at least decriminalising non-payment of it, had evidently not occurred to him.

Meanwhile, the BBC has started mobilising its forces. Its main staff union, BECTU, has launched a pro-BBC, anti-reform petition

Note how merely considering decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee is presented as ‘continuously attacking the BBC‘.  If this isn’t with the BBC’s full support, if not even co-operation, I’d be astonished. There’s also a petition by the Left-wing campaign group 38 Degrees

Again, I doubt if the BBC finds it unwelcome.

Its reliably on-message MPs among dripping-wet ‘one-nation’ Tories are distraught. The BBC is so much a broadcaster that people love,  gushed one Huw Merriman – a political nonentity who has somehow become chair of the Commons All-Party Parliamentary Group on the BBC – overlooking consistent opinion polling reporting the exact opposite, and whose own article ended with a poll in which fully 90 per cent wanted the licence fee scrapped.

Destroying the BBC would be ‘cultural vandalism’, hyperbolised loyal May confidant Damian Green, ignoring the fact that hardly anyone demands its ‘destruction’, merely the reform of its funding model to make it non-coercive.

Even ministers are backtracking furiously, running scared. There are no ‘pre-ordained’ decisions, babbled Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. The next BBC boss will need to be a reformer, squawked former DCMS Secretary Nicky Morgan, curiously forgetting that it’s the Government promising to require reform.

I suspect the strong probability is that, regardless of public opinion, a significant part of the Tory Parliamentary Party is already compromised. And that’s before MPs start coming under pressure from astroturfed letter-writing campaigns to their local papers and phone-ins to their BBC local radio stations.               

In the meantime, the BBC remains able to treat its captive funders with undisguised contempt. The courts have refused an appeal against the decision not to grant a judicial review of its impartiality vis-à-vis the requirements of its Charter. It backed its reporter who described the crowds celebrating in Parliament Square on Brexit Night as ‘too white’. 

Its Newsnight ‘expert on the deleterious effects of austerity’ was a far-Left activist. If its audiences hate its obsessively woke distortion of historical classics in the name of ‘diversity’, they can lump it.

All these developments hardly suggest Johnson’s robust-sounding earlier pledges on the BBC’s iniquitous licence fee will be carried through swiftly and eagerly. Or at all. As early as 5 February, News-watch’s David Keighley warned at TCW that the licence fee ‘overhaul’ would be a damp squib. Only last Saturday, the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s Sam Packer, also at TCW, showed how the sock-puppet ‘consultation’ on decriminalisation will be manipulated to guarantee the result desired by the BBC and its supporters within the Whitehall Blob.          

So, to answer that question posed three weeks ago: Yes, almost now a racing certainty. Johnson will indeed wimp out. 

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Michael St George
Michael St George is a freelance writer arguing for minimal-state, low-tax, free-markets minarchist-libertarianism. He tweets as @A_Liberty_Rebel. He is @LibertarianRebelon Parler.

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