If you're fortunate enough to be in government in a year ending in '6' you can do whatever you like to the BBC. The Corporation's charter comes up for renewal every ten years, and negotiations with ministers shape its future path over the coming decade. Amendments to governance can be tricky, and a focus on efficiencies uncomfortable, but the nation's broadcaster has tended to come out of these negotiations relatively unscathed. Until now. Our new majority Tory government, unencumbered by their coalition partners, has recognised it has a one-off chance to cut what it sees as a biased unjustly-financed public service down to size. And, alas, they're making a damned good job of it.
The attack began at the start of the last parliament with the freezing of the licence fee for six years. The Chancellor fixed the annual payment from 2010 to 2016 at £145.50, silently diminishing the corporation's revenue in real terms with each passing year. At the same time he passed on responsibility for funding the World Service and part of S4C, essentially kicking the BBC twice, while blaming austerity for his "need" to do this. And that was just the start.
The latest war kicked off in May with the appointment of John Whittingdale to the role of Culture Secretary. This free-marketeer and former backbencher had previously been chairman of the Media Select Committee, and has made clear his long-term opposition to the licence fee and to certain "anti-commercial" BBC activities. He's already revelling in his new position, and by being in charge during the Charter Renewal period he has free rein to impose his Thatcherite ideals. If you want to carve a piece of meat well, put an expert butcher in charge.
2015's first big assault came in the budget (or rather a few days before, in the now traditional leakage of every political announcement that might be a bit controversial). The Chancellor had railroaded the BBC into taking on the payment of free TV licences for the over-75s, deftly cutting his own outgoings whilst dumping the financial responsibility elsewhere. At a stroke he's reduced the BBC's income by another 20%, an amount equivalent to the Corporation's entire annual spending on radio, and probably received a congratulatory telephone call from Rupert Murdoch in the process. Most of the national press cheered loudly in response, because they hate the BBC too and have no impartiality rules preventing themselves from saying so.
There is a financial sweetener in Osborne's deal, which is to bring the licence fee into the modern age and extend its coverage to those who "only watch catch-up" on the iPlayer. So how's that going to work? At present you can watch the iPlayer from anywhere inside the UK, with the assumption that it's a service for all citizens. In future you'll need to prove you've paid the licence fee, which'll no doubt mean some kind of password-protected BBC account applicable to everyone in your household on whatever device they happen to be using. Demanding payment for catch-up will bring more revenue, but it's also a devious and deliberate step away from universal access, and perfectly set up to permit a move to an all-subscription BBC later when conditions permit.
And there's worse to come, because that 20% cut in funding is solely a Treasury deal and has nothing to do with Charter Renewal. John Whittingdale is still waiting for his chance to dig his teeth in, and has delighted in saying as much in the press. What follows over the next few months is a review of "the purposes and scope of the BBC", and only if these remain unchanged will the Chancellor's financial deal be honoured in full. There's not much hope of that. The Culture Secretary thinks the BBC should do less, cutting back on populist programmes and focusing more on public service, because that gives commercial competition a fighting chance. He'd love to snuff out big entertainment shows, he's more than keen on culling specialist radio stations, and he's already expressed a desire to shrink the BBC News website. The purposes and scope of the BBC will be reduced, and with them a further assault on the BBC's budget.
To help decide the BBC's future the Culture Secretary has assembled a panel of eight independent, but unbalanced, experts. One is a fervent believer that the Corporation shouldn't compete with commercial channels, another is an executive at a Murdoch company, and another supports top-slicing the licence fee to hand round to other companies. There's no room here for public opinion, which is far less anti-BBC than certain newspapers would like you to believe. But any free-marketeer would likely do the same if they were the minister in charge of Charter Renewal, they'd bring in a chorus that reflects their own personal preferences, and move inexorably towards an enforced reining-in.
There are further devious tricks in the wings, such as the possibility of shortening the Charter period from ten years to five. That would keep Auntie permanently on her toes, and speed up the rate of change, for example allowing the licence fee to be scrapped in 2022 rather than 2027. There's also the likelihood of a vicious circle whereby the BBC is forced to cut back on popular programmes so becomes less popular with the public, which justifies further cutbacks and greater unpopularity, until what's left is a marginal rump the shadow of its former self. The BBC's not perfect, it's too creative an organisation for that, but we shouldn't exploit its imperfections as an excuse to make it worse.
I do not understand how so many people can be against a broadcasting service that delivers so much for just 40p a day, but will merrily pay far more for a Sky subscription that's mostly repeats. I see no logic in eroding a national broadcaster whose output is the envy of the rest of the world, in particular in countries dominated by the commercial media our Culture Secretary is trying to emulate. I despair that the government seems hellbent on dismantling the BBC purely for ideological reasons, and not because it's what the general public actually wants. But most of all I'd really like somebody somewhere to stand up and lead a proper national protest against what these evil bastards are doing, rather than the entire country simply rolling over and letting them get away with it. As we're starting to learn to our cost, a universal public service lost can never be regained.