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This Sunday, culture secretary Nadine Dorries tweeted out a death sentence for one of the most respected and popular broadcasters in the world. “This licence fee announcement will be the last,” she wrote, along with a link to the Mail on Sunday’s splash. “The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors, are over. Time now to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content.”
She was doing her master’s bidding, as Boris Johnson thrashes around for anything to shift the narrative away from his own tumbling fortunes. Johnson demands “red meat” to mollify his MPs, who are in savage mood after a harrowing weekend in their constituencies listening to local people demanding his head on a plate. Axing the BBC is easy pickings, he thinks. But he may turn out to be as wrong about that as he is on just about everything else.
Thus spoke a Tory MP I talked to on Sunday, rolling their eyes in despair: “Here’s yet another national institution Boris wants to bring down with him, slashing and burning as he goes.” But will they speak out? No, not a single Tory MP dares back the BBC publicly yet, even if what some say in private is another matter. Will this assault on the corporation be as popular as Johnson imagines? That depends partly now on the BBC’s boldness in reminding people of its national worth, including what good value everyone gets for 43p a day. With such a weak government so blatantly looking for scapegoats, the broadcaster has no need to be craven.
The Brexit promise was of “Global Britain”, yet Johnson is wrecking all the soft powers to make that possible. The BBC is trusted and admired for the honesty of its news across the world, especially in countries where reliable journalism may be hard to come by. Its best programmes are our best ambassadors. Britain’s influence has been deliberately vandalised by Conservatives who talk mindlessly of “patriotism” while demolishing all the vehicles of national pride abroad: foreign aid has been cut right back, while the British Council – almost as old as the BBC – is to close 20 offices around the world. British academic influence has been battered by the needless withdrawal from the Erasmus programme, and scientists are locked out of Horizon research funding. Now the BBC is mortally threatened – just as, in the words of the University of Westminster’s Steven Barnett, its global reach is poised to “hit a weekly figure of half a billion people in its centenary year”.
The BBC is often considered the most respected media outlet in the world, with the World Service reaching 279 million people a week and the BBC News website the world’s most visited. What wouldn’t other countries give for such soft power? Instead, this global asset is tossed aside in the ideological mayhem created by this strange generation of nation-destroying Tories.
Mesmerised by the noise made by its detractors in the rightwing press, Johnson thinks the BBC is some preserve of the metropolitan liberal elite. But he may find that he is actually being deceived by his own echo chamber, increasingly detached from the world outside. The likes of Defund the BBC, the TaxPayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs attack this emblem of British culture, yet never identify their funders, so who knows who or what they represent – business or governments at home or abroad?
On Christmas Day, eight out of the 10 most watched programmes were on BBC One, with a record 141m programmes streamed on BBC iPlayer between 27 December and 3 January. The broadcaster is used by 90% of adults and 80% of 18- to 34-year-olds a week, according to the National Audit Office, making it by far the most used media brand in the UK. Leave it to the US streaming giants and there would be little British content, just a monoculture of globalised programming. Who would pay for its news, or children’s programmes or the BBC Bitesize Education service that was used by 5.8 million children during lockdown? How would we pay for the immeasurable riches of BBC radio or the regional stations that are one of the last bastions of local reporting?
When I speak to the shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, she jumps to defend the BBC Charter. The organisation has suffered cuts of 30% since 2010, and worse is to come following Dorries’s announcement of a funding freeze. The entire edifice is demolished just “because they don’t like its journalism”, Powell says. The Mail on Sunday article noted that government figures were “incensed” by the corporation’s reporting of Johnson’s partygate scandals – but the most outspoken coverage has come from the Tory press itself. Powell, as a Manchester MP, points to the “levelling up” effect that the BBC has on the country, with its operations in Salford, Cardiff and around the country. No other broadcaster would put more than half its jobs and producers outside London
The licence fee is not the only viable way to pay for it: possible alternatives might be a household tax, as in France and Germany; but it certainly shouldn’t be looking for funds in the Treasury’s pot, as it would then be left to compete in every budget with the NHS and defence. The principle that matters is that everyone pays in, so it costs far less for a panoply of programming right across the taste spectrum than could ever be funded by subscriptions from a few.
If the BBC, and its users, make a trenchant and confident case for what everyone would lose without it, it will survive and thrive. So the country has to ask itself what it values most: a great national broadcaster with such a wealth of programmes at the cheapest rate, or the political posturing of a lame-duck prime minister?
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist