The Observer view on the Tory vendetta against the BBC

Observer editorial
Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

The Conservative right has become the enemy within, a force bent on destroying not only our relationship with Europe but with much else that this country holds dear. The shredding of collective bargaining and the ambition to excuse our privatised utilities from their public-interest obligations were early objectives. Now there is Brexit. Next is the undermining of the BBC, along with the steady erosion of the NHS and the criminal justice system. The barbarians have stormed the gate in a libertarian assault on Britain’s public institutions.

The BBC is a longstanding target for their venom. Then chancellor George Osborne’s decision in 2015, conceived without consultation, to force it to shoulder the £750m annual cost of offering free BBC licence fees to the over-75s – turning an independent BBC into an arm of the Department for Work and Pensions – was a disgrace. It appeared to be part of his campaign to curry favour with the Tory right and show that even if he was a Remainer he was a fellow rightist at heart. The BBC board should have resigned en bloc.

But it did not want to raise the stakes so high, preferring to take the path of least resistance, rescuing what it could. Last week, the chickens came home to roost. The corporation announced, after a consultation with 190,000 people, that it could only afford to continue to offer the concession to a third of the age group, the very poorest who receive pension credit. To find the £500m extra to sustain the concession to all over-75s would have implied making swingeing reductions to some of what BBC viewers and listeners regard as most precious: its radio services, its regional infrastructure, BBC2 and 4. Instead, it believes its current efficiency drive can allow it just to square the circle – meet its imposed obligations, if only to a third of the over-75s, and preserve the services to which they and its wider audiences are so attached.

The enemy within went into attack mode immediately. No Tory leadership candidate who wants to win the votes of its Tory pensioner activists can back the BBC. The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail went into overdrive. A week after the D-Day anniversary, this anti-British institution, they declared, anxious to protect its overpaid presenters, managers and lush pensions, had obliged hard-pressed over-75s – veterans – to find £154 a year out of their stagnant incomes. This bloated liberal institution, home to Remain Britain, should be forced to pay for the pensioners’ TV licence, cutting the pay of its well–heeled staff to find the funds.

Facts did not intrude into this argument: if every BBC presenter and manager earned no more than £150,000, well below the salaries of their tormentors and the £275,000 Boris Johnson gets for his Daily Telegraph column, the BBC would save no more than £20m. Unhappily for its critics, because the BBC discloses the pay of its highly paid employees – and its wider workforce – more comprehensively and transparently than any other British organisation, it can prove its point.

The greater truth is that it is being asked to find savings that represents a rounding error in Britain’s £700bn a year of public spending for no other reason than the enemy within want to shrink it still further out of ideological conviction. It is already a quarter smaller in real terms than in was in 2010, besieged by behemoths like Netflix, Liberty Global and Fox, none of which cares a fig for British over-75s.

Britain’s pensioners deserve and want a BBC worth listening to and watching, that continues to embody the best of British values and culture, anchoring our national creativity, which overseas broadcasters want to milk rather than nurture. If we want to make the societal choice that the over-75s get their licence fee free, then society should pay for it and the settlement should not be behind closed doors as a result of a Tory vendetta. Most importantly, we need politicians with the stature and popular following to take on the conservative enemy within.