The BBC is so much more than a subplot in the Tory soap opera

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<span>Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA</span>
Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

The culture secretary’s recent attacks on the BBC – freezing the licence fee for two years, promising a dire funding vacuum when the royal charter rolls around in 2027 and the TV licence isn’t renewed – lack the power to terrify. Nadine Dorries, clueless and inconsistent, is not a serious politician. More saliently, I can’t see this government in power in 2027.

However, the debate has one unsettling element: it reminds me of Brexit. I’m aware of the new common sense, that serious people have moved on, and that it is a childish or hysterical thing to harp on about. But in this case, the parallels are too insistent.

This is the game plan: the right flank of the Tory party attack an institution that is so much a part of national life that you’re minded, initially, to ignore them. They may as well attack postboxes, or hydrangeas. Nevertheless, they keep going, becoming more trenchant. The rhetoric appeals to, and mobilises, their base: it doesn’t make much logical sense (what does a Surrey pensioner have against Brussels? Don’t Somerset landowners love the Archers?), but it’s understandable at some hindbrain level, an act of self-assertion. You think we’re yesterday’s people? Let’s see how relevant we are when we’ve broken everything.

There follows a sudden, on-the-back-foot scramble to express everything people love about the institution: look what amazing value for money it is, its rich history, its noble foundations, its global reach, its many triumphs. There’s a bit of disbelief and discombobulation (who would ever want to destroy these good institutions, so painstakingly built?), self-soothed with number crunching – the BBC costs just 43p a day, for this richness. A resistant stance takes shape, a form of progressive conservationism.

There’s nothing wrong with resistance, but now the progressive side is riven by a fundamental contradiction. Left-liberal politics simply doesn’t exist to stand around with muscles clenched saying “Everything is great, please don’t change it”; it draws its energy from critical analysis, from trying to make change, from progress. A few on its edges, understandably, would prefer to see the whole thing burn than to live with their new role as aggrieved cheerleaders, and they become Lexiteers, or people who are happy to see the BBC destroyed because they think Laura Kuenssberg is partisan.

Related: The Guardian view on the Tories and the BBC: a backlash sees off an immediate threat | Editorial

It is precisely because Dorries has such slim prospects that it’s worth the risk of having this conversation differently. Have you ever thought the BBC needed to change? Have you ever found it too servile to the sitting governments, or too dominated by the print media’s agenda, or insufficiently responsive to a digital age, or lacking diversity?

In 2018, a few proposals were made: the election of some board members by staff and licence fee payers; transparency about workforce diversity; a permanent statutory footing, to end political control through charter renewal; a digital licence fee paid by tech giants or internet service providers, to reduce the costs for poorer households. These sober ideas, having emanated from Jeremy Corbyn, were written off at the time as indicative of a dangerous, borderline totalitarian attempt at controlling the media, even though they address all the problems of household cost and impartiality raised by Dorries and her allies, without starting a bin fire. But it would be childish, hysterical, to relitigate.

The writer Dan Hind and academic Tom Mills posed much further-reaching questions that same year: what if there were a partner organisation, a British Digital Corporation, that could function as a platform for news and civic participation, incorporating online payment systems and platforms for sale and exchange: a Facebook, PayPal and eBay rolled into one, except not extractive or commercial or private, but publicly funded and transparent. How would that interact with, and change, the BBC? How could the BBC foster real diversity and launch a more robust defence against fake news? How could it disperse its power across regions, and get away from the current hierarchy in which the centre controls discussion of the “big issues”.

I returned to that last idea in the light not of Dorries but of the Downing Street parties. There are two elements to that scandal: the shambolic unravelling of the prime minister and his revellers; and the contrasting accounts from citizens, burying their loved ones at socially distanced funerals, paying vast fines for tiny infractions. It is at once a national and a local story.

There’s no shame in the fact that the BBC didn’t uncover it, as other investigative news organisations are available. But its journalistic scrutiny trailed behind that of the print media – “peripheral” details of people’s lives, the stories of the relatives whose funerals they were not able to go to, the people they were not able to see, were not deemed relevant until they had the crunch of Westminster hypocrisy to give them texture. Never mind the politics: this was a news gathering failure, which came from outdated norms in public service broadcasting over who gets to stay silent and who gets to be heard.

Criticism is a precondition for imagining change, and the potential to change and modernise is what makes any institution truly valuable, rather than a much-loved relic. We should never be chased from the territory of what could be better by the threat of those who long for the worst.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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