The government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson often under-performs but never under-sells. Mr Johnson frequently describes his achievements as “world leading,” although the facts frequently say otherwise. And so when the British Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries promises a “golden age” of British broadcasting to compete with streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, there is considerable scepticism, especially since the BBC remains the world’s most famous, and by staff numbers, the world’s largest broadcaster. It has 22,000 employees including 2,000 journalists. It is unclear what Ms Dorries’ new “golden age” will look like, but some detect a vendetta against existing broadcasters, including the BBC and the independent TV Channel 4.
The BBC began exactly a century ago. Since 1922 there has often been a love-hate relationship between British governments and the broadcaster, which is funded by the licence fee, a tax on all those who watch television. The amount is set by the government. That means the BBC is editorially independent yet financially often a political football. Ms Dorries is kicking the football now. Originally called the British Broadcasting Company, the BBC was first funded by big business, the high-tech media barons of the 1920s, the makers of "the wireless," that new-fangled invention we now call radio.
The funders lost money, so the British government stepped in, renamed it the British Broadcasting Corporation and most recently set the licence fee at £159 a year. That’s just 43p a day. It allows British people access to numerous national and local TV and radio channels, programmes, podcasts, films, dramas, international news and catch-up services. Buying just one quality British newspaper, The Times or The Guardian, costs more than £2 a day. But now the licence fee, and therefore the BBC itself, is under threat.
Ms Dorries has already frozen the licence fee for two years and says it should be scrapped completely. She is unclear how the BBC will subsequently be funded. Ms Dorries is a colourful character. She is the author of some novels, but has endured mixed reviews both for her fiction and her politics. Her 2014 novel The Four Streets was described as “the worst novel I have read in 10 years,” by The Daily Telegraph. The New Statesman offered the worst criticism possible of fiction, writing that “Dorries is just not very good at making things up”.
As Culture Secretary she has repeatedly been accused of being clueless about the job, suggesting, for example, that the independent Channel 4 TV costs the British taxpayer money. It does not. One critic sarcastically suggested Ms Dorries has “written more books than she has read”. Then, in a bizarre interview, she explained that her job included ensuring access to “tennis pitches” instead of tennis courts, that viewers could “downstream” TV programmes (perhaps she meant downloading streaming services?), and that the internet in Britain would be made the safest in the world. The meaning again was unclear.
Ms Dorries responds that she mixes up words because she has dyslexia, but her critics worry that she is pursuing her political vendetta to neutralise the BBC, Channel 4 and other critics because she – and her Conservative colleagues – view journalists as left wing or liberal or biased against her party.
In this Ms Dorries is at least treading in the footsteps of giants. Every significant British prime minister in living memory, whether on the political left or right, has had rows with the BBC. Many tried to clip its wings. The BBC coverage of the 1956 Suez crisis was disliked by those in power. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher tried to silence – literally – BBC coverage of Republican paramilitary groups during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Mrs Thatcher also wanted to scrap the BBC licence fee and force it to take advertising. Labour prime minister Tony Blair demanded an inquiry into critical BBC coverage of the Iraq war of 2003. That led to the resignation of the BBC’s chairman and director general.
In the past century the BBC has also had countless inquiries into its editorial standards, its future, its impartiality (or lack of) and its funding. Left wing commentators, such as Owen Jones, claim the BBC is a nest of right wing establishment characters. Perhaps the decades of criticism simply signpost the BBC’s importance in British public life and culture. But Ms Dorries may change that. The funding row, and uncertainty about the future, risks destroying one of the greatest British institutions and among the most trusted news sources in the world.
I am biased, because I worked for the BBC for years. I therefore politely suggest that someone in Ms Dorries’ Culture department should dig out the 1980s Peacock inquiry, which was a review into the BBC's financing, ordered by Margaret Thatcher. Professor Peacock – to Mrs Thatcher’s surprise – concluded that rather than advertising or subscription, the BBC licence fee was the “least worst option” for ensuring the continuation of a national treasure. Sadly, even if Ms Dorries is eventually persuaded, it is a mistake to undermine the one British institution which for a century has truly been “world leading,” the uncertainty she has created means some of the damage already done will be difficult to repair.