DOES David Cameron really wish to go down in history as the prime minister who finally saw off the BBC? The mood music makes it seem that way.
Picture the saloon bar piano, bashed about a bit and decorated on top with rings from careless glasses. Cameron joins George Osborne for an anti-BBC bash at this old piano. After a disagreement about who gets to use the one stool, they both agree to play standing up. While Cameron uses two fingers to tap out a light and seemingly inoffensive melody at the top of the keyboard, Osborne is stalking up and down the deep end, composing a doomy riff made up entirely of bass notes.
God what a depressing racket. Where’s Jools Holland when you need him?
Yesterday a long list of celebrities and media types signed a letter to the Daily Telegraph calling on Cameron not to diminish the BBC. The signatories included JW Rowling, Chris Evans, Daniel Craig, David Attenborough, Clare Balding, Brian Cox, Judi Dench – oh, all sorts, too many to list.
This all-star warning came after the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, revealed that he had reached a deal with the BBC to pay the cost of free licences for the over-75s. This dubious arrangement was widely reported to have Osborne’s inky fingerprints all over it. Today the process goes in deeper, with a government green paper debating the size and scale of the BBC.
The public figures said in their letter to Cameron that as the government and the BBC were now entering the charter review, “We are writing to place on record at the very start of the process our concern that nothing should be done to diminish the BBC or turn it into a narrowly focused market-failure broadcaster. In our view, a diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain.”
Unaccountably, no one asked Man On Ledge to sign, but I would have done in a flash.
No one pretends the BBC is perfect: just tune into The One Show for proof of that. For if hell really does exist, my guess is it will be a never-ending edition of that programme, clod-hopping inanities spun into a perpetual loop of mundane misery. Well, it’s not for me, as you can see. But the BBC is important, far too important to box into a dull corner, as those who hate it or oppose it would like to do.
The charter review sets the scope and size of the BBC and, by agreement, it has to be sealed by the end of next year. One aspect of Mr Whittingdale’s review that has already been much leaked by generally hostile forces (see the front page of The Sunday Times last weekend) is the belief that the BBC has been chasing mass ratings at the expense of its public service brief. So what is this statement really saying – that the BBC should only make boring programmes nobody wants to watch? And if that dire prospect was achieved, the same voices would then say that the BBC should be scrapped because it broadcasted shows of such unremitting tedium.
How would Rupert Murdoch react is he was told by the government to only produce boring newspapers that no one was likely to want to read? And does all this imply that the Beeb should abandon popular shows such as Bake Off and Strictly? The Voice is mentioned as a format that other broadcasters could have bought in instead, which is true, but the BBC made a good fist of that show, if you like that sort of thing. Also the Beeb having The Voice keeps ITV on its toes with The X Factor – and vice versa. Broadcasting needs an ecology of competition, and the BBC has to be a proper player in that, not merely a public-service drudge.
The letter-writing celebrities say that during the course of the charter, they would continue to make the case “a strong BBC at the centre of British life”. Among those who signed was the actor Mark Rylance, who with his performance in Wolf Hall earlier this year provided a one-man validation for the purpose and occasional glory of the BBC.
As for whether or not Cameron wishes to be remembered as the prime minister who finally sank the BBC, this is unlikely – but it could just happen anyway if the dark noises off are allowed to grow ever louder, and if George Osborne pulls any more devious tricks. And Osborne telling everyone that he really loves Strictly won’t cut it if he’s forcing a big squeeze behind the scenes.