A sharp appointment?
Following Lord Moore's decision not to put himself forward for the Chairman's role, things are finally looking up for the BBC, says Ray Snoddy
In these terrible times for the media it is a pleasure to report a few tiny morsels of good news – the Government’s apparent determination to undermine, and perhaps even destroy, the BBC as a national public service broadcaster has seemingly been put on hold.
There are two small but rather telling pieces of evidence, which suggest at least a partial change of attitudes behind closed doors.
Until very recently, the fate of the BBC, in the hands of this Conservative government with its 80-seat majority, seemed very bleak indeed.
During the last days of the December election campaign, Boris Johnson, fired up perhaps by long-term BBC opponent Dominic Cummings, started talking about decriminalising the licence fee and even its abolition.
The BBC was also told by Johnson to make the right decision and fund free licence fees for all over-75s - a Hobson’s choice that would cost £750 million a year from the outset, even though the Government had given the Corporation the “right” to choose what to do.
A doomsday scenario for public service broadcasting in the UK seemed complete when the news leaked that the Downing Street favourite for the BBC Chairmanship in 2021 was former Daily Telegraph Editor and general BBC hater, Lord Moore.
We can date the slow turning of the tide in the BBC’s favour from the moment Lord Charles Moore withdrew his name from the race earlier this month.
He had come under increasing fire for once being fined £262 for failing to have a TV licence after he refused to pay the fee until the BBC sacked presenter Jonathan Ross for his part in the prank calls with comedian Russell Brand to the actor Andrew Sachs.
It has also been suggested that he found the £160,000 a year pay cheque for the part-time post not nearly enough.
Now, advertisements for the job have been placed, short-lists will be drawn up, the leading candidates interviewed, and then Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden will put forward a recommendation to the Prime Minister.
There will even be pre-confirmation questions before the Culture Select Committee, rather in the mode of the American system of appointments.
This is the process and of course, it all amounts to tosh.
The Chairmanship of the BBC is a political appointment pure and simple. You can be certain that the successful candidate will have well-established Conservative credentials.
After all, Mrs Thatcher appointed the Conservative accountant Stuart Young and the equally Conservative newspaper executive Duke Hussey to the Chair, though both broke free from stereotypes and defended the BBC’s editorial independence –albeit to different degrees.
The new favourite, former investment banker and multi-millionaire, Richard Sharp is of course not merely a Tory but a generous donor to the party.
However, here’s the good bit. Sharp is known as an individual thinker who not only likes the arts, but was instrumental in helping to negotiate pandemic financial support for the film and television industries.
He actually understands the importance of film and television production to the UK economy, and presumably the BBC’s role within that creative ecology.
There is one particular reason why he should be able to see off other heavyweight Conservative candidates such as former Chancellor George Osborne: It would be a less overt political appointment, but more importantly, he has one foot in 10 Downing Street and another in number 11.
Sharp worked as economic advisor to Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London and was also Rishi Sunak’s boss at Goldman Sachs.
That should make it a slam dunk once the joke candidates, such as former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, have been weeded out.
Positive number two for the BBC, and this one is straight there on the record.
The Government seems to have belatedly got it that decriminalising of the licence fee, which seemed a done deal, might not be such a great idea after all.
The process of gently letting down Tory back benchers who have been baying for the change has already begun.
Dowden told the Commons Culture Select Committee recently that he thought “there are major challenges around decriminalisation, which we continue to consider.”
The key major challenge is the danger that it would be sending out a message that it is “acceptable” not to pay the licence fee and that in the real world, millions of people might decide it’s nice to receive BBC services for free without having to fund the organisation.
It would be fine and dandy to decriminalise, apart from the likely consequence that it could verge on the existential for the BBC.
The immediate cost would mean an estimated £200 million a year loss, on top of the £150 million hit of providing free licence fees for the over 75s on income support.
But that might be only the beginning, with the BBC left to chase hundreds of thousands of people, possibly many more, through the civil courts.
The Government is due to publish its answer to a consultation on decriminalisation later this year. The Culture Secretary’s “concerns” are a clear indication that the tricky decision will be pushed down the road at least to the mid-Charter review of the licence fee in 2022 - by chance the centenary of the BBC.
You either want a national public service broadcaster funded by a universal fee or you don’t and if the decision is to go for destruction, it should not be allowed to happen casually, carelessly or by default.
The positive signs are modest and far from guaranteed but they are real nonetheless, compared with where we were as recently as three months ago.
Perhaps the greatest shift in the BBC’s future prospects have come from events. It would be bizarre if a government tied up in knots by Covid-19, Marcus Rashford and delivering Brexit, was able to spare the time to continue attacking the BBC.
As with politicians of any political flavour, it’s often a case of two steps forward and one step back.
We might not be about to appoint a BBC hater as Chairman or decriminalise the licence fee but how about privatising Channel 4?
In the current circumstances, this a bat crazy idea from broadcasting Minister John Whittingdale, who tried once before when Culture Secretary to privatise the channel, before being slapped down by Osborne.
Then, the hopes were Channel 4 could be sold for £1 billion although some rather more sensible estimates were closer to £300 million if the current remit was protected.
In the middle of a pandemic and a collapse of advertising revenue, what would the channel be worth now?
You can write in any small amount that comes to mind.
If would be good therefore if Oliver Dowden could continue the outbreak of common sense by announcing that any thought of privatising Channel 4 would not only be challenging but also cause for real concern and should be rejected immediately.