THE future of the BBC is finally an issue that can be talked about without people throwing up their hands in horror. Well, maybe not if you’re in a university common room. But outside the M25 you can. Sometimes even inside it.
So what should be done? The conventional conservative/libertarian idea is that the BBC should be moved to a subscription model. But there’s a more radical idea that you may never have heard of. In a controversial talk given to Conservative Future in 2009, the libertarian activist Sean Gabb made a bolder recommendation: ‘On the first day of your government, you should close down the BBC. You should take it off air. You should disclaim its copyrights. You should throw all its staff into the street . . . You must shut it down – and shut it down at once.’
Until recently this idea would have shocked most people, even most conservatives. (If you read to the end of the Gabb article, you’ll see that the young Conservatives were outraged.) But actually it’s a very good idea. Because here’s the rub: if you privatise the BBC, it may do very well for itself, and then it would be free to spin the news far more outrageously than it currently does.
If you wondering how they are going to bring in £3.5billion a year from voluntary subscriptions, the answer is that they don’t have to match their current funding. Once they’re private they can jettison a lot of the stuff they’re forced to produce and focus more on material they can sell overseas for a shedload of money, while ramping up the political shows which aren’t that expensive to make. Say they need only one billion a year in that scenario. If they get ten million subscribers, that’s only £100 a subscriber. Or £200 if it’s five million subscribers. I can imagine they’d manage that – every virtue-signaller in the country would subscribe as a point of honour.
I would have said that three years ago people would have been too horrified at the thought of closing down dear old Auntie BBC for it to be a realistic option, but now Auntie has revealed herself to be a mad old obsessive who won’t stop going on about the same topics and telling everyone else in the family that they’re bad. She’s clearly gone doolally, the kids stopped listening to her years ago, and the grownups have noticed how much she smells. And how much she costs.
Richard Delingpole tweeted this sort of idea recently, and got thousands of likes and retweets:
So this idea is not quite so alien any more. Particularly amongst younger people, who just don’t watch the BBC. They generally don’t watch much TV at all, they prefer YouTube and TikTok, but they especially don’t watch the BBC (or Channel 4). So most young people won’t even notice if the BBC is closed down, although about thirty sociology undergraduates will eventually tweet about it once their lecturers tell them what’s happened, and then the Guardian will have a fit and try to make it a big story, but there’ll be no BBC to amplify that, so it won’t be that effective. The other channels are unlikely to shed too many tears over the shutdown of a subsidised rival.
Another thing in favour of shutting it down is that the BBC doesn’t make much that is worth watching any more. The only thing that people really cling to is Strictly Ballroom. Everything else that they used to love, like Doctor Who, has been ruined. Bake Off has gone elsewhere. Most of its comedy shows have for decades been abysmal. There’s not much sport on it. The kids’ shows are so anodyne that they’re unwatchable.
Shutting it down will be easier now that most of the programmes are made by outside production companies, rather than in-house. That means there won’t even be as much gear to sell off as if it you’d done it twenty years ago. And its new location in Salford means that it lacks a strong London media-friendly focal point for protests.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is genuine anger in much of the country over the blatant bias that the BBC is now showing. It’s so naked and in your face that there’s never been a more auspicious time to end the BBC, and have half the country rise to their feet and cheer. Even many of those who stay seated won’t miss it that much.
So I think it is doable. One problem, though, which didn’t exist so much when Gabb wrote his article, is today’s highly politicised courts. There will be a huge series of lawsuits launched if the BBC is shut down overnight, to do with existing contracts. These can be paid off, of course, but you can expect the activist Supreme Court to come up with some legal ‘reasoning’ that enables it to declare that it’s all unlawful, and the BBC must be restored at once, and never touched again.
The real problem, of course, is that the Conservatives would never do this in a million years. They might just turn the BBC into a subscription service, eventually. They might just shut down Channel 4. But shut down the BBC? The Tories would be on the front line defending it.
There’s another option, though, that I’m going to explore tomorrow.