AS A result of the pandemonium triggered by coronavirus, it’s easy to forget that the BBC faces the prospect of root and branch reform or something even more radical such as privatisation. I say ‘faces’, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘faced’. For the fact is that the virus has presented the BBC with an opportunity to escape the change it so badly needs and which so many licence fee-payers and politicians crave. And it looks like it might get away with it.
There are two reasons for this.
First, the looming financial slump means that there will be many more pressing issues for the government to tackle over the coming months (or even years). Licence fee reform is very likely to slip down the agenda.
Second, Covid-19 has allowed the BBC to remind the nation of the role it plays in times of crisis. It likes to present itself as the trusted source of information that a civilised society requires when there is an emergency or disaster and as the service to which people automatically turn when they need to know what is going on.
In this case, the BBC has behaved like the uncritical mouthpiece of the government. It has been helpful. Truly, it has been a Big Brother Corporation, parroting the line of the day without seriously challenging the wisdom of certain decisions made by Boris Johnson and his colleagues. There is a precedent for this. Many will recall the BBC did its best to help the Cameron administration during the Brexit referendum as well.
By showing such obedience it will have earned valuable points in Downing Street. In the eyes of its lords and masters, therefore, you could say the BBC is having a ‘good’ coronavirus crisis. I would even go so far as to say that the BBC is already confident of victory in its battle with the government.
There is some evidence to back up this assertion. For one thing, the BBC has recently put on hold plans to start collecting the annual cost of the licence fee from those aged over 75. This exemption was due to be lifted on 1 June but it will remain in place until 1 August at the earliest. That will have gone down well in many quarters as hard times approach.
Furthermore, this week outgoing BBC chief Tony Hall announced that plans to scrap 450 jobs in BBC News have been suspended. It will now be for Hall’s successor to make the case for keeping these posts. In the teeth of a recession, the new boss might well decide to retain many or most of these staff, including the near-redundant sports host Gary Lineker on a reported £1.75million a year. In this new era of big government such a decision would also go down well, presumably.
Thanks to its guaranteed income, the BBC does not operate in the real world. It never has done. It is the ultimate trust fund kid, burning through the money it knows it doesn’t have to work to obtain. And by the way, just for good measure, it is about to receive even more of your cash. On 1 April the annual licence fee will rise by £3 to £157.50.