On 18 March 2015, two past and future culture secretaries ran into one another at the Tower of London, William the Conqueror’s great fortress on the Thames – historical locus of unbending power, political reversals and untimely executions. The occasion was a party to celebrate the premiere of the fifth season of Game of Thrones, Sky’s fantasy drama of intrigues and violent strife: guests were offered a tour of the crown jewels and escorted by Beefeaters to the white tower for drinks before watching the show.
The former culture secretary was James Purnell, the 45-year-old ex-Labour politician and now director of strategy and digital at the BBC. The future holder of the post was John Whittingdale, at 55 the backbench Conservative MP for the pleasant Essex town of Maldon (famed for a battle between Saxons and Vikings during the reign of Ethelred the Unready and the production of gourmet salt flakes beloved of the Waitrose classes). At the time, Whittingdale was the chair of the parliamentary select committee on culture, media and sport, which had just published a report into the future of the BBC that mooted the end of the licence fee that provides £3.7bn of its £4.8bn income. A holder of a handful of shadow ministerial positions in the early 2000s, he had thus far languished unpromoted under David Cameron’s leadership. The two fell amiably into conversation – during the course of which Purnell predicted that Whittingdale would be the next culture secretary. To everyone else’s surprise, Whittingdale’s most of all, he was right. When Cameron shuffled his newly minted majority Conservative government on 11 May, Whittingdale received a summons to No 10 – to be offered, he assumed, a junior ministerial post in some uncongenial department. Instead, the incumbent at the culture ministry, Sajid Javid, was promoted to business, and Whittingdale was offered culture. It was a “bombshell”,Whittingdale has said – this was his “dream job”.
Whittingdale and Purnell are now playing lead roles in a struggle that matters to everyone in Britain – and many beyond its shores: the renewal of the BBC’s royal charter, which sets the scope and scale of the corporation, and which must be settled – replacing the agreement forged in 2006 – by the end of 2016. Purnell’s job is to forge the case for maintaining the BBC’s size and reach, and to help fashion a compelling plan for its future. Whittingdale, after his years of scrutinising the corporation, now has the opportunity to put his views into action.
A green paper setting out the government’s position will be published this week, and the Tories have already briefed its most significant proposals to the press. These include a “root and branch” review of the BBC’s mission and operations, guided by a panel of outside experts –many of whom are critical of the BBC – that is almost certain to challenge everything from the licence fee to the corporation’s mandate to provide “universal” programming. Soon afterwards, the BBC’s response will be laid out by director general Tony Hall in a series of speeches over the summer and autumn. A white paper will probably follow early next year, with a settlement expected next summer.
Some observers are looking forward to a bloody battle. Whittingdale, who worked as an aide to Norman Tebbit in the early 1980s and then as Margaret Thatcher’s political adviser (he was dubbed “Maggie’s toy boy” in a cheeky tabloid headline of the time) has aired views on the BBC that are either dangerously rightwing or crisply radical, according to taste. When Cameron announced his new team – a cabinet elated and liberated by the unexpected election result – the Daily Telegraph’s gleeful headline was: “Tories go to war with the BBC”. The leaked details of the forthcoming green paper suggest a dramatic confrontation over the corporation’s very purpose, centred on competing definitions of “public-service broadcasting”. The green paper will contemplate scrapping the licence fee, propose that the BBC’s news website be diminished to protect commercial rivals, and question the political impartiality of BBC News.
The situation for the BBC is perilous. Despite the steadying presence of Hall, who became director general in April 2013, the memory of a string of recent disasters is still fresh. Hall’s immediate predecessor, George Entwistle, resigned on 11 November 2012 after just 54 days in the role, following a pair of catastrophes relating to the current affairs show Newsnight. The first concerned the show’s decision not to air an investigation into sexual abuse perpetrated by the late BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile; the second was the mistaken naming on social media of a former Conservative party treasurer, Lord McAlpine, as a paedophile. The extent of Savile’s crimes, committed while he was being promoted into a national star by the BBC, dented trust in the corporation.
At the same time, lavish severance packages given to departing executives caused a public scandal: one deputy director general had been awarded over £1m “just to walk out of the door”, as a furious Jeremy Paxman succinctly put it to me. One of Hall’s first acts as director general was to cap payoffs at £150,000, but the perfume of extravagance lingers. These and other crises opened up the corporation to vicious attacks from its bitter long-term critics in the press and its commercial rivals.
On top of that, the body created to oversee the corporation and act on behalf of its audiences, replacing the old system of governors – the BBC Trust – has been found wanting, and will almost certainly be abolished after only 10 years in place. More serious for the BBC’s income is the strong probability that the government will decriminalise non-payment of the £145.50 licence fee – a move that Cameron has indicated he will make sooner rather than later – which would cost the corporation an estimated £200m per annum as evasion increases, as it surely will, if criminal sanctions end.
All the while, the BBC is under constant siege by those sections of the press – mostly on the political right – that feel their businesses are threatened by the corporation’s size, or their worldview challenged by what they claim as leftwing bias in the BBC’s news coverage. Since the dispatch of its favourite quarry Ed Miliband into insignificance, the Daily Mail has reserved some of its strongest vitriol for the BBC – including an outraged news article revealing that the BBC spent £127,643 last year to purchase copies of the “left-leaning” Guardian, and only £40,482 on the Mail, a calculation that conveniently omitted the disparity in cover price between the two papers. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun has also weighed in, as have the Times and the Telegraph, in their own more sober way. (“The BBC’s broadcasting model,” according to one Telegraph editorial, “is as outdated as the vast state-funded monolith that runs it”.) The BBC has always been the butt of criticism from its rivals: the Daily Mail, for instance, has been sniping at the corporation since the 1920s. Accusations of mismanagement and gross inefficiency were rife in the 1980s. Directors general – Hugh Carleton Greene in the 1960s, Alasdair Milne in the 1980s, Greg Dyke in the 2000s – were ousted through combinations of political enmity and editorial calamity. But as it goes into battle to defend the terms of its existence, never, perhaps, have the forces ranged against the BBC been so many and varied.
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The events of the past weeks, as a newly empowered Conservative administration has flexed its muscles, give an eloquent sense of the danger that the BBC is in, and how little power it has to withstand government incursions. On Wednesday 8 July the chancellor, George Osborne, erased £630m from the BBC’s income at the stroke of a pen.
The attack came suddenly. There was no debate, consultation or anything approaching a public process. On Monday 29 June, Hall received a telephone call from Whittingdale, informing him that Osborne would be requiring the BBC to take on the cost of providing free licence fees for people over 75 – which had been shouldered by the Department for Work and Pensions since 2001, when the then chancellor Gordon Brown introduced them as a pre-election giveaway. It was always a dangerous move for the BBC, since it shunted a portion of its funding out of the realm of the relatively protected licence fee and into the gift of a government department, subject to the turbulent tides of politics.
For a zealous chancellor fresh into his second term, who has promised further spending cuts and deficit reduction, shrugging off the cost of these licence fees was irresistible: £630m (rising to £750m by 2020) was a considerable sum to lose from Osborne’s balance sheet. Whittingdale, whose select committee had in fact urged against such a move, was a mere messenger: his tidings on 29 June were that there was to be no discussion, simply imposition. Hall responded that to make such a move would be tantamount to dropping an atomic bomb on the BBC. It would result in the nation losing, within as little as three years, huge chunks of services: BBC2, or the whole of local radio.
The one big card that the BBC could have played was to go public with the intended move, refuse to sign on the dotted line, and attempt to invoke its viewers, users and supporters as allies in open conflict with the government. This was a move it had been prepared to make, but in the view of BBC tacticians, it would have been worthwhile only if the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had the clout and will to weigh in subtly and effectively on the BBC’s side. But the department has been enfeebled by cuts since 2010, and, quite apart from his views on the BBC, Whittingdale was the new boy, still learning the government ropes. Relying on the culture department as an intercessor with the most powerful figures in government would, it was decided, put the BBC at risk of being ripped apart.
And so Hall began negotiations directly with Osborne, bypassing the still green culture secretary. A quickly assembled team within the BBC began calculating potential offsets to the shortfall, figuring out the value of concessions Hall could attempt to wrench from the chancellor. He managed a commitment, conditional on the satisfactory outcome of the charter discussions, to an index-linked rise in the licence fee; an end to the use of the fee to pay for broadband rollout; and the closing of a loophole in licence fee regulations, meaning that those who watch only catchup TV online will now be required to pay.
This cluster of conversations – in person between Hall and Osborne at the Treasury, and via telephone – took place over a matter of a few days before the budget speech on 8 July. The process, if one could call it that, was nasty, brutal and short.
The first battle in the BBC war had, then, been fought – a bloody assault that will have serious consequences for the corporation, despite Hall’s insistence that he has achieved a “strong deal”. But there is more to come. Between now and this time next year the future scale and scope of the BBC will hang in the balance. On the government side, the question is whether the BBC is doing too much: whether it should be pruned back hard in order to allow more space for other businesses (including newspaper websites); whether parts of it ought to be privatised; and whether, in a world of media abundance, it needs to be a universal service, providing something for everyone. On the BBC side, there will be a desire to create a new governance structure to secure the corporation from precisely such assaults as the one it has just suffered, to present a compelling future plan for the BBC in a maturing digital world, to protect the income from its commercial activities – and, most important of all, to demonstrate that it still holds a precious place at the centre of British national life.
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John Whittingdale has given only one newspaper interview since his elevation, to the Sunday Telegraph, which he used to deny its sister paper’s headline that his appointment signalled a “war” against the BBC. (As soon as the original story was published, one senior BBC employee told me, calls came in to Broadcasting House from “officials, advisers, ministers, everyone”, to reassure the corporation that open combat was not the intention.) Last year, though, while I was researching a book on the BBC, Whittingdale and I talked at length, and I had the chance to hear his personal views laid out clearly, unfiltered by realpolitik.
On a February morning, we sat in the canteen at Portcullis House – the building that houses MPs’ offices in Westminster – amid the self-important waltz of special advisers, MPs and lobbyists. Whittingdale was pleasant, well-informed, and firm in his opinions. He began by situating the BBC according to his own political compass. “I am a free-market Conservative, and therefore begin with the presumption that generally things operate better if they are in private ownership and operate in a market,” he said. “So the question is, do we need a BBC? And my answer to that has always been yes, because there are things that are in the public interest to have that would probably not be viable on a commercial basis.”
Public-service broadcasting “doesn’t just mean narrow programmes about Guatemalan hill tribes’ eating habits; it actually does extend into high-quality drama, risky material, arts and culture, news and current affairs at the core, religion, education, children”, he said. But, he continued: “There are some areas where I think the BBC is way outside the definition of what I call public-service broadcasting, shows where quite obviously they are copying a format which is already available in the market, such as The Voice … Is there a public-service argument for Strictly? Debatable. Is there a public-service argument for putting out Strictly at roughly the same time as ITV is running X Factor? No. The one thing in my view the BBC should not be thinking about is ratings, but they do because of the licence fee. That’s the problem.”
The licence fee created a false logic, he argued. Because it was in effect universally chargeable (being dependent on a household’s owning a television) it demanded that the BBC act universally, that is, to create something for everyone: popular programmes for everyone to enjoy, as well as niche programmes to serve minorities. But universality, Whittingdale contended, was unnecessary in today’s world of proliferating choice – and indeed undesirable, as it disadvantaged commercial broadcasters lacking the BBC’s enormous funding advantage.
He was against the licence fee for other reasons, too: “It’s very regressive, it’s very expensive to collect, you get these ridiculous letters threatening you with having your fingernails pulled out if you don’t admit that actually you’ve got a television hidden somewhere … and the level of evasion is pretty high, and quite a number of people go to prison for failing to pay the fine.” He referred admiringly to a report that he had commissioned when he was briefly shadow culture secretary in the early 2000s, by a team including David Elstein, an eloquent critic of the BBC who started as a trainee at the corporation before working for Thames, Sky, Channel 5 and others. That pamphlet, Beyond the Charter (2004), advocated abolition of the licence fee, a move to subscription for BBC TV and the creation of a Public Broadcasting Authority funded by the Treasury, to which the BBC would be entitled to apply for funding, along with other broadcasters. “I still think it is brilliant, I still think that it stands the test of time,” Whittingdale said of the report. But when it was published, he added, “the political climate wasn’t right, Michael Howard was leading the Tory party, he didn’t want to fight with the BBC, it disappeared.”
Beyond the Charter also mooted the BBC’s moving away from making TV programmes altogether, an idea of which Whittingdale also approved – except for “news and current affairs” and “arguably I’d keep David Attenborough, because that is such a big specialist field, the natural history unit”. He talked too, about the notion of outsourcing some commissioning to other public-service bodies such as, say, the British Museum or the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Whittingdale said he was pro-Radio 1 (historically a target for privatisation, not least because it began in 1967 as a nationalised version of popular but illegal pirate stations). His enthusiasm was partly familial: his son, at the time in his final year at Bristol University, regarded it as “still the greatest station on the planet” and had convinced his father of its importance in introducing new bands to a wide audience, in contrast to commercial stations with narrower playlists. (Ben Cooper, the controller of the network had also “very kindly” – not to mention presciently under the circumstances – invited Whittingdale junior to visit Radio 1’s HQ.) Whittingdale senior, a fan of Meat Loaf and Deep Purple, also told me that “I don’t think there’s enough heavy metal on Radio 1”.
More significantly, he had trenchant views on the manner in which the BBC managed itself, and the size of its workforce, which stands at about 21,000. “The BBC is the most wasteful, bloated organisation on the planet,” he asserted. “Chris Patten [the BBC Trust’s former chairman] used to make jokes about the army of the People’s Republic of China being the organisation that’s the closest he’s encountered to the BBC: it is just huge numbers of people, many of whom don’t appear to be doing anything. And every person I talk to in the BBC tears their hair out about all these people with mad titles. You know, the BBC is full of directors of sustainability and all those other sort of ridiculous titles” – the kind of thing satirised by the BBC’s own comedy about itself, W1A. The notorious payoffs were a “disaster”; and there were “quite worrying reports of bullying culture which is just being swept under the carpet”. Nor should the BBC be paying vast sums to stars. “I have long taken the view that to some extent the BBC is an incubator, the BBC is there to identify talent, to groom talent, but not necessarily to keep talent. If someone – be it Jonathan Ross or Jeremy Clarkson [this was before the latter’s abrupt departure from Top Gear] becomes so successful that he has to be paid a million pounds or he will go to ITV, then let him go.”
I asked him what he would do, in the then unimaginable scenario that he were in charge of charter renewal. He said that he would end the licence fee and pay for the BBC from “straight exchequer funding” (from, for example, income tax). That would mean “it would obviously be subject to the same pressures as every other form of public spending”. (Even more significantly, it would be directly subject to the changing tides of political favour, arguably compromising its independence). He concluded: “My private view has always been that you have a much smaller BBC doing a much more targeted output of clear public-service content.” Given his narrow definition of public-service broadcasting, it sounded very much as if his ideal BBC would not be doing a lot.
Taken as a whole, Whittingdale’s vision seemed to point to a BBC much diminished, one no longer part of the weft and warp of national life. His was a BBC as, largely, publisher rather than maker (and sometimes not even that). It was a BBC that would be closer to US broadcasters such as NPR or PBS, providing highminded material for the few, rather than collective, popular experience for the many. It was a BBC slimmed down into a space easily crowded by the great titans of commercial broadcasting from the US. It would be a partially gutted BBC, stripped of popular high-budget dramas and widely viewed entertainment shows such as Great British Bake Off or Strictly; nor would it employ stars. By definition, it would be marginal. It would be poorer, for it would lack the great export shows, such as Top Gear and Sherlock, that make it money overseas. It would simply not be the BBC as we know it. And in turn, I could not help feeling, since the BBC is so fundamentally wrapped into the nation’s sense of itself, it would no longer be Britain as we know it.
* * *
Since its foundation in 1922, the BBC’s natural state, like that of the Roman empire, has been one of expansion. Of its rapid growth (from four employees in 1922 to 5,100 in 1939), Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in his book The Thirties: “The BBC came to pass silently, invisibly; like a coral reef, cells busily multiplying, until it was a vast structure …” The BBC grew as the wireless craze of the 1930s took hold; then grew again when television came, and again when colour was introduced, and on and on. And it worked: every time a householder bought a licence in increasingly prosperous postwar Britain, it benefited everyone else, because it went into the great shared broadcasting pot to be distributed back to the populace as a super-abundant supply of information, education and entertainment. As John Reith, the BBC’s founding director general, wrote, broadcasting “is a reversal of the natural law, that the more one takes, the less there is for others … There is no limit to the amount that may be drawn off”.
The times and technologies have changed, however. We are in a new age of on-demand, of choice and subscription and streaming. We are in an age in which the BBC’s dominance in our lives is shaken not only by Sky and Channel 4 and ITV, but by Netflix and Amazon, Apple and Google. Once, the BBC stood alone, grand and proud like a great edifice on the horizon – I think of old photographs of St Paul’s Cathedral, which, even in my lifetime, humbled the shabbier and smaller edifices around it. Now that horizon is crowded by the new vainglorious towers of capital. What was once vast is now dwarfed. Hall told me last year: “I think we are at the end of a period of, as it were, unbridled expansion of the BBC. We’re now in a period when we have to define much, much more carefully what it is the BBC offers and what is it the BBC can do …” He was contemplating acts of retrenchment, such as the moving of BBC3 – the channel much loved by younger and lower-income viewers – to an online-only service, which the BBC Trust has now ratified. Hall is, perhaps, the Hadrian of the BBC’s emperors, the first non-expansionist who tactically withdrew from troubled territory and concentrated on consolidating his borders. The policy brought stability, but the empire had reached its territorial peak.
What Hall and his colleagues see as consolidation is, nonetheless, utterly opposed to Whittingdale’s vision, which strikes at the principle, carefully husbanded since the 1920s that its service should be universal, providing for all tastes and reaching all people.
In 1924, Reith wrote in his book Broadcast Over Britain: “It does not matter how many thousands there may be listening; there is always enough for others, when they too wish to join in. It is the perquisite of no particular class or faction … There is no first and third class. There is nothing in it which is exclusive to those who pay more.” The BBC is still clinging fiercely to the Reithian principle that the corporation exists to do more than to plug the gaps left by commercial broadcasters – that it creates the invisible but strong filaments of shared national memory, emotion and experience that bind every inhabitant of these islands together. That is the vision that the BBC would like to sustain. That is the vision that gives it philosophical licence to provide something for everyone, from 1Xtra to Wolf Hall, and the means and heft to ensure it can.
I met Hall recently in the House of Lords, where he sits as a crossbencher. Hall took me to the Royal Gallery, a grandiose room dominated by Daniel Maclise’s vast depictions of the Battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar. He is an unflamboyant man, his accent bearing the faintest hint of his native Birkenhead. Directors general of the BBC tend to be defined in relation to their predecessors. If John Birt was process-obsessed and managerial, Greg Dyke was warm and demotic. Mark Thompson was thick-skinned and clever; George Entwistle straightforward but inexperienced. In this pattern Hall has his place as a BBC old-timer (he ran news and current affairs in the 1990s, and inherits something of the strategic aura of his former boss, Birt). But he is also, crucially, someone who has seen life on the outside, spending a decade as chief executive of the Royal Opera House before he was called back to the ailing BBC, Cincinnatus-like, in April 2013. Just as Whittingdale was not expecting to become culture secretary, Hall had ruled out a return to the BBC until events intervened. Safeguarding the BBC is the unlooked-for apogee of the 64-year-old’s career. He will not want to fail.
I have spoken with Hall many times; on this occasion I sensed that the pace of his professional life had intensified, that the endgame was upon him: his loins were girded for an endless round of speeches and public appearances, of intense private meetings with the government, of planning sessions with his closest colleagues. Of judiciously timed announcements designed to press home certain messages about the BBC – its increased efficiency, its positive impact on the British economy, its creative strengths. All the while he was presiding over the vast citadel of the BBC, pacing the ramparts to guard against crises and scandals that could scupper the best-laid of plans.
He marshalled some of his arguments. The Reithian tricolon – “inform, educate and entertain” – he said, was still urgent and valid: paid for by a licence fee, free at the point of delivery, and made cheap, good and possible because of the fact that the whole nation shared in it. The BBC was essentially an Enlightenment force, making knowledge and information available to all. It did not inhibit the growth of the markets in which it operated, Hall argued, but was a catalyst for the creative economy, the fastest-growing part of “UK plc”. The BBC would become “genuinely porous”, an enabler for creative people and organisations around Britain, rather than a closed fortress. Forty-six million Britons use the BBC for 18 hours a week, he reminded me, according to the corporation’s research. It is part of Britain, he said, a fact that is recognised all over the world – it is only in Britain itself that this sometimes appears in doubt. The BBC must remain a programme-maker; it must have its own intellectual property in the globalised media world. “You could fund it by subscription,” he said, “but it wouldn’t be the BBC. I believe utterly in universality.”
* * *
If Tony Hall is the commander-in-chief of the BBC’s operation to secure the BBC, James Purnell is his top strategist. He is an unruffled presence, both in temperament and dress, the sort of man whose shirt cuffs are a precise distance from the end of his jacket sleeves and whose mind is similarly ordered. He is the leader of a team of thinkers whose arguments, they hope, will prove unassailable. There is James Heath, the head of policy, who worked for Labour culture secretary Chris Smith in the 1990s and later for ITV; there is Gautam Rangarajam, head of the strategy unit, an intellectually able former radio producer who is a semi-professional choirman in his spare time; and John Shield, director of communications, a man of steely calm who has moved across to the BBC from government. I asked Purnell, in his comfortable little office in Old Broadcasting House, how he intends to close the gap between his and Whittingdale’s positions. Second-guessing what might appear acceptable to the government was a mug’s game, Purnell argued. “The BBC can tie itself up in knots trying to work out what will be convincing to people. Actually it’s a very popular organisation and you should just go out and make the arguments on their merits, with evidence.” He added: “You can squeeze a very ambitious version of the BBC into the argument that it is an organisation that exists to correct market failure. Arguably, it might be more persuasive. But it’s not true. This is clearly a life-enhancing service that meets public goals we have as a society.”
In the field, Shield is fighting on the flank. “I think the BBC, as an organisation with such an important role in public life, has been, on the whole, remarkably shy in making a case for why it exists, and equally challenging attacks that are made upon it,” he told me from the press office, a room full of furrow-browed workers who by turns parried attacks from the rightwing press and supplied the same papers with stories about beloved television stars. In a departure from previous practice – the BBC has hitherto tended to absorb attacks without commenting publicly – Shield and his team, especially since the election, have become much more assertive, taking to Twitter to issue detailed rebuttals of reporting they regard as unfair or inaccurate. (For example, in the case of the article about how much the BBC spent on the Guardian by comparison to the Mail, the press office tweeted: “Daily Mail says buying 80,679 copies of Guardian is evidence of ‘left leaning bias’ at BBC. Doesn’t mention the fact we bought 78,436 Mails.”)
There is no fixed pattern for renewing a BBC charter. Each round of negotiations has its own character. A charter may last for any period, but usually 10 years, which grants a certain stability. This time around, the government is keen for a five-year charter, allowing for consideration of a replacement for the licence fee. In 1996, John Birt secured a deal with the government “giving us all that we could have wished for” (as he put it in his autobiography, The Harder Path) – a 10-year deal that staved off privatisation, allowed huge commercial expansion, and retained the licence fee. Since his arrival at the corporation in 1987, he had been neutralising the Conservative government’s hostility to a BBC it saw as leftwing, inefficient and disaster-prone. First he reformed BBC news, introducing specialist reporters and tightening editorial controls; then he introduced an internal market, made thousands redundant and prepared for a digital future.
Birt’s actions were deeply divisive within the corporation, and he was the target of real loathing. In retrospect, every headline about misery inside the BBC probably helped its cause with the government. As the deadline for charter renewal approached, he instituted a dozen “taskforces” of staffers to help build up arguments for the BBC. The young Tony Hall was the chair of one of these groups, who were assisted by the management consultants McKinsey (an expensive luxury, even at reduced rates). Aside from the taskforces, there were lavish three-course lunches for backbench MPs, boxes at the Proms and seats at Wimbledon for “opinion formers”, and consultations, with buffet lunches, for special-interest groups (such as religious representatives), organised by Biddy Baxter, the longtime editor of Blue Peter.
Persuasion aided by such opulence would be unthinkable now. “It will be all much more Calvinist this time,” said Purnell. There will be much in the way of public rhetoric from Hall and others; and much activity behind closed doors, too. A former employee of the culture department, who has worked on previous charter renewals, described a constant shuttling of proposals and counter-proposals between the BBC and the government; endless lobbying of the secretary of state by interested parties; “a lot of noises off; a lot of screaming and shouting”. Inside government, ministers will have their own deals to make with Whittingdale, promising support in return for his, or their own, pet projects. Special advisers will be calculating the potential political fallout of certain courses of action. The culture department will be “churning out documents on various options”. On previous occasions, the proposed charter renewal agreement has been signed off by the cabinet economic affairs committee, which is currently chaired by Osborne. Whittingdale will need to achieve cabinet unanimity – and the approval of the chancellor and prime minister. But, the former official stressed, there was no fixed pattern, no rules. The government could frame the process as it pleased. It could “take months, or an afternoon”.
The current BBC fighting force arguably lacks a crucial resource: time. As the former culture department official told me in June: “The longer the process is, the better it can be for the BBC – they can argue their point, get more people on their side, and have more time to scare the public about what might be taken away from them if the BBC is diminished. But this time, the government has all the cards. With an enfeebled department of culture and strong views about the BBC in government, the BBC can be very quickly outwitted.” So events have already proved.
According to David Elstein, the corporation can expect a much tougher ride with Whittingdale than his equivalents under Thatcher or Major. Whittingdale is, he believes, in a strong position to act on his impulses: he has manifesto commitment to freeze the licence fee, a select committee report in his back pocket advocating its eventual end, and decriminalisation of non-payment of the fee on its way: “He’s already got three aces in his hand and the issue is will he have a full house or will he have four aces. You know, he’s got the winning hand.” The unknown factor, as yet, is how Cameron and Osborne will assess the potential political fallout of appearing to dismantle the BBC as we know it. Despite the best efforts of parts of the press, the BBC remains more popular with Conservative voters than the electorate overall. Margaret Thatcher harboured a deep loathing of the BBC (“leftwing, monopolistic, anti-her”, as Charles Moore, her biographer, put it to me). And yet she lacked the political appetite to raze it. The last Conservative majority government may have opened the door to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky, but they did not, as was widely feared at the time, privatise the BBC or compel it to fund itself through advertising.
“Our programmes are in the end are our strongest card. And if there were ever a real threat to the BBC, or to Radio 4 – the strongest supporters of the BBC are Conservative voters,” Purnell said. A senior manager at the BBC told me he believed that the Conservatives will still be in power in a decade, which may work in the BBC’s favour. If the Conservatives really wish to take the centre ground, and stay in power for the foreseeable future, then protecting the NHS, schools, the BBC, might be a politically canny thing to do. So runs one calculation.
Until 1926, the BBC had operated as a company, its board composed of wireless manufacturers. It was John Reith who argued that the broadcaster was more than a business: it was a public service. And so it needed to be run like one, governed in the public interest. With remarkable generosity, the board members accepted this with barely a murmur. They were handed back their original investments at par. As the Economist of 13 March 1926 put it, “there is no question of compensation”. In turn those directors handed over the company to the nation, to be overseen by independent governors acting in the people’s interests. (The same Economist article praised the notion that because no part of the BBC was reliant on direct government funding, it would be protected “against the raids of even the most predatory chancellor of the exchequer” – but the author could be forgiven for then not foreseeing the rococo politicking of figures such as Brown and Osborne.)
The question for the country now, and its politicians, is whether the BBC’s founding vision still has any currency; whether the BBC can still be something different from a media business and something more than a “content provider”. Can it still be part of the essence of Britishness, existing as a public space through which we may all pass as equals, selling us nothing, simply there for our information, education and entertainment? Can it remain our “guide, philosopher and friend”, as Reith had it? In the end, these are questions that cut to the heart of what British society consists of, and what kind of nation we want to be. It is an argument that the BBC can win or lose; and it is in the newly empowered Conservatives’ gift to decide its fate. All that could possibly stand in the government’s way is the will of the people. Britain will have the BBC it deserves.
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