Hurrah! BBC licence fee increase preserves a bourgeois Pravda

May 22, 2009

But for how long? On 19 May, the Tory motion to freeze any increase in the BBC licence fee was defeated by 334 to 150 votes in the House of Commons. The compulsory tax of £11.62 per month on every household with a TV or radio, enforced by highly democratic ‘we know where you live’ threats to prosecute evaders, will increase to £11.88 per month. Hardly a sum to break the bank, and still good value, compared to a Sky subscription, we might say. The Tories had argued that in a deflationary economy, any increase was unwarranted and that the BBC was a bloated, bureaucracy-heavy, anti-democratic termite hill built on a dungheap of overpaid, over-rated elitist smartarses who deserved to be gassed like badgers.

OK, they didn’t quite phrase it like that, but the backstory is that the BBC’s ‘liberal’ culture has traditionally manifested itself in bias against the Conservatives. Ironically, When New Labour swept to power, empowered by the support of the Murdoch media empire, it set about taking control of state communications in classic Stalinist fashion, starting with an exponential expansion in the number of government-salaried PR flaks. Led by the boorish Alastair Campbell, they intimidated, bullied and bored the BBC into a parody of independent broadcasting. Early into Labour’s Reich, many BBC apparatchiks felt about as comfortable as Irish kids in a Christian Brothers care home. When BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan claimed in 2003 that the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ Dossier, the pretext for the UK to go to war in Iraq, was ’sexed up’ by Campbell, the government went to war with the BBC. Gilligan’s source, UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, was hounded to suicide and Campbell made it his declared intention to ‘fuck’ Gilligan and the BBC. The resulting ’sexed-down’ Hutton enquiry exonerated the government and led to the resignation of Gilligan, BBC Director General Greg Dyke and Chairman Gavyn Davies. New Labour poodle Mark Thompson replaced Dyke. The BBC, or at least any pretence to independence, was indeed fucked.

Unless you were in management. Dyke’s predecessor, Blairite John (now Baron) Birt, hobbled the corporation with wasteful and demoralising layers of neo-Soviet bureaucracy, schizophrenically linked to ’streamlining’ attempts to create a neo-commercial ‘internal market’ culture. Instead of making programmes, producers and editors held the coats of outside contractors who charged ‘market rates’ – cost plus a profit – often to do exactly the same thing as inhouse staff. In a bizarre conceit of ‘competitive pricing,’ the BBC started paying market-leading fees to random ‘talent’ like Jonathan Ross, Graham Norton and their production companies to make formula chat shows, on air up to five nights a week. Professional interrogators such as Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman now command over £1 million per year to broadcast polemic to minority audiences. Everyone, apart from the audiences, has benefited immensely.

In a mirror image of commercial media, the pyramid scheme was sustained by ballooning growth in executive salaries and infrastructure. As commercial stations succumbed to market forces as viewing figures and advertising revenues declined despite an economic boom, the BBC, with £3.2 billion guaranteed revenues from a captive taxpaying audience, has expanded more or less any way it chose.

The BBC never tires of proclaiming itself as the envy of the world. To the degree that it maintains an undemocratic right to broadcast, based upon compulsory subscription, this may be true, especially if you are a journalist in the free market. It broadcasts some excellent, worthy factual and documentary content, consistently good comedy shows and panel games and has a great website. But does it efficiently deliver value and relevancy? Morale, especially amongst its creative staff is generally low. And, dare I say it – of course I will – its news output is often partial, patchy, and hopelessly unrepresentative. This morning on the posh channel, Radio 4, we heard another non-story about MPs’ salaries, a small piece about Congress resistance to Obama’s Climate Change Initiatives and Guantanamo travails, a longer piece about Madeleine McCann, an even longer piece about the alleged demise of the dormouse from Britain’s countryside and the earth-shattering news that a couple of WH Auden’s embarrassing odes to Soviet Communism, used as subtitles for an obscure propaganda film, lost for 50 years in the archives of the British Film Institute, have been uncovered – and found to be crap. Mostly twaddle, not news. Commercial channels may be no better, but they rely on subscription revenues and advertising, not state coercion, for their right to exist. Their audiences vote with their wallets. When the Tories return to power, a Great Terror will descend upon this monument to Birt/Blair/Brown Stalinism. The chatterati will wring their hands, but the proles will hardly notice. Telly is telly, especially when it becomes digital wallpaper. It doesn’t have to be that way.