BBC must have confidence in itself if it’s to survive coming battle with government

One of the ironies of the BBC is that it conducts its battles with government so nervously, given their comparative levels of public trust. As poll after poll shows, people don’t trust the government, but they do trust, and like, the BBC. And yet two stories from this weekend – Cameron’s might-have-been-a-joke comment that he’d close the BBC down and director general Tony Hall’s acceptance that the licence fee would only last another ten years – showed how disconnected the BBC’s confidence is from its performance.

Nick Robinson’s odd revelation yesterday that the prime minister had said he would “close them down after the election” could have been a joke. But, as he wrote afterwards, “it doesn’t really matter… the people who did [work for the BBC] regarded it as yet another bit of pressure and a sort of sense of ‘don’t forget who’s boss here'”.

A sense took hold among senior Tories during the election that the BBC was fighting for a Labour victory. It was an absurd charge which did more to reveal the desperate sense of misplaced victimhood within sections of the right than it did any conspiracy in the BBC’s coverage. During the campaign, then-culture secretary Sajid Javid said one Today programme item was “very, very anti-Tory” and you got a sense that there would be a Tory assault after the vote, if they managed to stay in power.

BBC TV Licence Fee

Tory MPs and right-wing commentators have a daily ritual pointing out how biased and left-wing the Today programme is each morning. It is an extraordinary thing to behold, a Rorschach test for bleating self-entitlement. The programme is anchored by a predominantly faintly conservative crowd. The right’s complaint about its coverage seems to be that it occasionally features people who do not think exactly like them.

BBC journalists often end up standing outside the BBC to door-step their own bosses

In truth, the BBC seems biased because its sense of balance – two contrasting viewpoints summarising the dominant disagreement in each area – naturally tends towards the status quo. So on economic matters, there is a sense that the BBC is to the right and on cultural and social matters that it’s to the left. You can raise questions about the idea of balance as opposed to impartiality – and indeed those questions should be raised a little more – but that is another matter. It is not some sort of Labour cheerleader and only the most blinkered observer would suggest it was.

The public are certainly not blinkered. A recent YouGov survey put trust in BBC news journalists at 61%, next to 45% for broadsheet journalists, 22% for mid-market tabloid journalists and just 13% for ‘red top’ journalists.

Internal BBC polling shows a long-term rise in trust in the BBC, despite the faked competitions row in 2007, the Brand/Ross row in 2008 and the Jimmy Saville scandal in 2012.

But the interview with Tony Hall on Andrew Marr yesterday did not feature the sense of confidence one might expect given the chasm between public affection for his organisation versus the government. Instead, he said he’d “go along with the argument” that the licence fee had ten more years in it – a hopelessly pessimistic suggestion which suggests he believes he is engaged in a rear-guard defence rather than an aggressive attack.

Hall is trying to be positive ahead of a charter renewal battle which will last into the end of next year, with avowed licence-sceptic John Whittingdale leading the government position as media secretary. It’s not in his interests to go negative before negotiations even start, so partly his comments may be interpreted as tactical. But the underlying assumptions behind them reveal a lot about the strange levels of relative confidence between the BBC and government.

The iPlayer has raised questions about BBC funding – including whether TV-on-demand viewers should pay the licence fee.

As Robinson noted, Cameron’s comment – whether a joke or not – suggests that he believes he is ultimately the boss of the BBC. Hall’s comments reveal the nervousness with which the BBC shields itself from incessant attack from a mighty coalition of privately-owned news outlets and government ministers.

This nervousness is understandable but counter-productive. There is, of course, room for movement on how and when the licence fee is paid but its general principle remains sound.

The BBC cannot defend the licence fee if it’s constantly allowing it to be compared to a commercial payment. Hall’s argument – which is correct but not emotionally engaging – is that by everyone chipping in we all pay less. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the licence fee – and therefore the BBC – will only survive if an emotional argument for it is made. That involves treating the high level of trust in the BBC as a result of its funding model, not some strange quirk.

The licence fee is key to public service broadcasting. It is, in order to do this, regressive and coercive. That much cannot be denied. But what do you gain for that intrusion? We get publicly-owned media free from the commercial imperatives of the free market. And we get an extraordinary degree of public control over it.

It is not just that the licence fee turns the BBC into a bandage for market failure elsewhere in the media, although its ability to serve small minority groups who would not justify profit-making programing is a key part of what makes it such an effective funding arrangement. It’s also that the licence fee removes the suspicion and reality of commercial imperative behind privately-owned media.

Power on: The licence fee is often accused of being coercive and regressive

Take Rupert Murdoch’s empire, as people often do when talking about these things. On the one hand you have the Sun, where the commercial interests of its proprietor constitute a key aspect of its editorial position. On the other hand you have Sky News, which is protected by Ofcom guidelines from going down the same route. And yet each side suffers the same perceived weakness, because of their private nature. Even where corporations are unable to buy influence or coverage, the suspicion that they could radically limits the trustworthiness of the news outlets. And that’s not even to mention the shamefully arrangements of many newspapers – some of them held in high regard – as they seek to compensate for a falling readership with ever-more questionable deals with advertisers.

The licence fee also provides a model for how public ownership can bolster accountability far more effectively than the profit motive. While there is insufficient transparency at the BBC, the difference between the way it is scrutinised and held to account compared to its competitors is highly revealing. BBC ‘scandals’ usually lead the BBC’s own bulletins, with the curiously satisfying sight of BBC journalists outside their own offices door-stepping their own bosses. Just imagine seeing a similar operation outside a Murdoch-owned station.

In fact, you don’t need to imagine anything, because you got an impression of how well privately-owned news outlets police themselves when a Fox News anchor interviewed Murdoch during the phone-hacking scandal. His pitiful deference was almost funny, with one attempt to raise the subject being met with a refusal to speak and his own stuttering apologies. “No worries Mr Chairman, that’s fine with me,” the poor man said, clearly hoping he’d still have a job in the morning.

The licence fee makes the BBC our business. It takes the extraordinary power of a media outlet and turns it into something which is open to public scrutiny and held to a higher standard. It is a million miles away from the closed, secretive world of privately-owned media.

The overwhelming dominance of the idea that public is bad and private is good makes many politicians think the levels of trust the BBC enjoys are an anomaly. After all, the corporation disproves the basic thrust of the Conservative (and increasingly the Labour) worldview, which is that competition always improves standards. In fact, increased transparency, a public-service ethos and an embedded social mechanism of scrutiny and accountability improve standards much quicker than competition does.

The BBC can make that case and make it convincingly. It’s certainly true that the public are open to it, if rates of trust in the BBC are where they are despite daily attacks from the privately-owned press. But to do so it must not be limited by the consumer argument for the licence fee as a sort of cheap-but-mandatory Netflix subscription. It must be prepared to say why the licence fee works, why public broadcasting is so widely admired and why its successes are the result of a system which side-steps the cheapening effects of competition and private ownership.