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The BBC at the crossroads... again

07 Feb 2020  |  Stephen Arnell 
The BBC at the crossroads... again

Can the Corporation, in its current form, survive an emboldened Conservative government? It's not looking good, writes Stephen Arnell

Once again, it appears that the BBC is facing barbarians at the gate.

The Corporation faces crises on a regular, cyclical basis, but this time it feels more consequential.

With fact-averse Boris Johnson as PM and Éminence grise Dominic Cummings nursing long-held animosity toward the institution – ‘a mortal enemy’ of the Conservative Party in the words of his New Frontiers Foundation in 2004 - Auntie looks to be facing a truly existential moment.

Cummings’s festering dislike of the BBC is revealed in his blog, where in the ‘About’ section he warns:

‘I was Michael Gove’s main adviser September 2007 – January 2014, with a break May 2010-December 2010. (NB. BBC people in particular: I said in September 2013 I was leaving and I left voluntarily in January 2014, do not put me in your lists of ‘people who were fired’ as you are prone to.)’

The upper echelons of BBC management increasingly find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

If they cave into pressure and become an increasingly neutered entity, with investigative journalism off the menu and probing interviews with government ministers reduced to 1950s style fawning, many will ask what’s the point of a supposedly independent state broadcaster?

But, if the Corporation attempt to galvanise public opinion and tough it out, the road to a ‘voluntary’ or subscription service come licence renewal in 2027 looks extremely likely – perhaps with a small-ish state subsidy to make sure the new slimline BBC can be kept on a leash.

Former BBC Director Generals Alisdair Milne (1982-87) and Greg Dyke (2000-04) both found to their cost that governments of any political stripe don’t like to be crossed, with public embarrassment of the ruling party high on their list of actions that will trigger a swift vengeful response.

Unfortunately for the BBC, they can almost be guaranteed to provide ammunition for their enemies.

The appointment of Labour apparatchik (and former babysitter to Tony and Cherie Blair’s children) James Purnell to senior positions in BBC management, with an obvious eye on advancement to the DG post appears singularly wrong-headed, and likely to inflame further the right-wing fringe (now centre) of the Tory Party.

A recent story in the Spectator claimed a Downing Street source said that ‘if the BBC’s board and Clementi ‘try to put someone like Purnell in [as DG], we will put in a chairman whose first job is to fire him…The likes of Purnell [would be] “dead on arrival”.’

There’s some feeling that the BBC has already bent to the prevailing winds in its more accommodating coverage of the Conservatives when compared to Labour, but that’s unlikely to have pacified enemies in Matthew Parker Street.

Boris can install his own BBC Chairman next February when current chair David Clementi stands down.

He’ll be sure to find someone that won’t ‘go native’ as Sir Christopher Bland (1996-2001) and Lord Patten (2011-2014) were felt to have done, despite their right-of-centre credentials.

Will he turn to a ‘Bufton-Tufton’-type similar to the eccentric Sir Marmaduke Hussey (1986-96) who seemed to regard the BBC as his personal fiefdom/members club?

‘Duke’ of course was brought in John Birt to take an axe to the BBC’s top-heavy bureaucracy and correct any notion of left-leaning bias in news and current affairs.

We all know how well that went.

The sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg turning up at new Broadcasting House as the incoming Chairman would be enough to chill the blood of many BBC senior executives.

They’d probably hear the Bullingdon-style braying all the way from Downing Street.

As ever, in some ways the BBC will at least be in part the author of its own misfortune, as long-term strategy when dealing with any government tends to be a combination of ‘hope for the best’, batten down the hatches and pre-emptive cringe.

Stephen Arnell is a broadcast consultant

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