Grumbling about political bias at the BBC is nothing new.
Back in 1937, when television was in its infancy and the Corporation was largely a radio broadcaster, the Tory MP Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon confided in his diary: ‘The BBC is very red or rather very pink in its programmes and the propaganda it spreads.’
Exactly the same language can be heard today among Conservatives — more than 80 years later. But the criticism has far more resonance now than it ever did in the past.
That is not just because the concern about the Corporation’s partiality reaches right to the top of Boris Johnson’s Government, fuelled by recent rows over the coverage of issues such as Brexit, but also because the media landscape has changed dramatically with the advent of a multiplicity of new internet and satellite stations.
The time when the BBC evening schedule was a fixture in most households has long gone. Millions of people, especially the young, now get their news and entertainment from sources such as Facebook, which provides regular individual news digests, created by algorithms and based on the user’s own preferences.
The current licence fee system remains a huge privilege which has led the BBC into self-indulgence, disdain for public opinion and a lack of real accountability (stock image)
To the smartphone generation, it is almost incomprehensible they should have to pay for a service they don’t use.
Meanwhile, many members of the older generation resent Auntie’s lack of political balance. And as the BBC’s primacy is eroded, with it goes the justification for the anachronistic licence fee.
The future of our public-service broadcaster’s funding was thrown into sharp relief yesterday by reports that, following negotiations with the Corporation, the Government has decided the licence fee will rise by less than the rate of inflation over the next five years.
This effectively means a cut, which Ministers argue is necessary to prevent households being hit by higher bills.
‘These are hard times. Nobody wants to punish the BBC but it’s got to be subject to the same efficiency savings as everyone else,’ said a government source.
Inevitably, many within the BBC will feel it has been penalised again by a Tory Government which has little attachment to the concept of public service broadcasting.
But instead of wallowing in grievance, the organisation should accept the need for change and embrace a new funding approach.
The reality is that the licence fee, a relic of the BBC’s monopolistic past, has had its day. In the new diversified broadcasting environment, the Corporation should switch to a subscription model, where users can voluntarily pay for their service rather than be forced to do so on pain of imprisonment and a criminal record.
Even if it will shrink marginally in real terms over the coming years, the current licence fee system remains a huge privilege which has led the BBC into self-indulgence, disdain for public opinion and a lack of real accountability.
With a guaranteed revenue worth more than £3.5 billion, the BBC does not have to worry about satisfying its audience or respecting the pledges, set out in its Charter, to uphold political balance.
I make that observation not as a hostile outsider but as someone who spent 25 years working for the BBC as a reporter and an executive on shows such as Radio 4’s flagship Today programme and BBC2’s now defunct The Money Programme series.
I still deeply admire the Corporation for the breadth of its professionalism and creativity, qualities reflected in its award-winning dramas, its coverage of classical music, its superb documentaries and the range of its local news.
But those assets do not mean that the BBC should be allowed to retain its unique position of advantage in perpetuity, sustained by the bounty of taxpayers’ cash.
The justification for that privileged status has been lost because of the BBC’s cavalier attitude towards the promise of impartiality contained in its Royal Charter. If the Corporation had lived up to its responsibilities as a public broadcaster, there wouldn’t be a crisis over the fee.
With a guaranteed revenue worth more than £3.5 billion, the BBC does not have to worry about satisfying its audience or respecting the pledge to uphold political balance (file image)
But the truth is that the BBC has an ingrained liberal-Left bias, which leaves a huge number of licence fee-payers, perhaps the majority, feeling ignored and alienated.
In its corridors, an atmosphere of groupthink prevails, shining through everything from its negativity about Brexit to its outrageously hostile coverage of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The same innately progressive mentality is demonstrated in the disproportionate attention it gives to the public sector, where every bleat about ‘Tory cuts’ and every trade union grievance is treated with a kind of reverence rarely applied to the private sector.
In a similar vein, pressure groups and charities are given sympathetic airtime for any new report that peddles the fashionable Left-wing narrative of misery under the Conservatives.
The Director General Tim Davie, who once stood as a Tory councillor, has said that restoring impartiality is one of his key priorities, but whether his rhetoric translates into action remains to be seen.
The news that Jess Brammar, an anti-Brexiteer and former editor of the Left-wing Huffington Post, is hot favourite to become the BBC’s executive news editor, is not an encouraging sign.
In many respects, the BBC is in the vanguard of the woke movement in its fixations with identity politics and every form of self-proclaimed victimhood.
Yet, despite its cheerleading for the social justice warriors, it does not want a revolution. On the contrary, in its own field, it wants to keep the established order, including the funding system.
But the case for the end of the licence fee is compelling. It is a throwback to a past, redolent of food rationing and exchange controls. Backed by its heavy-handed threats, it should have no place in a sophisticated 21st century liberal democracy where mobile technology is ubiquitous, given that a clear alternative exists in a switch to subscription.
So next year, when the Charter is up for mid-term review, the BBC should be put on notice that the licence fee will expire in 2032, allowing ten years for preparations.
The BBC has no need to fear such a development. It has global brand recognition, audience loyalty and unrivalled experience within it ranks.
Competition could, I believe, actually work to the BBC’s advantage: improve its output, and lessen its political bias because it would have to work harder to retain its subscribers and could not afford to alienate them.
But the BBC will fight such a change all the way, determined to protect its valuable licence-fee privilege. And its allies in The Press, the opposition parties, lobby groups, churches and the unions will join in the protests.
Yet this would be a blinkered, reactionary approach that will do nothing to secure the future of the BBC.
The Corporation has to adapt to survive. Given how fast communications are developing, a siege mentality will spell doom for the BBC as ever more people vote with their feet.
According to the BBC’s annual report, last year was the first in its history when the number of payers fell, a remarkable outcome given the increase in the population.
If nothing happens, that trend will accelerate.
As the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote: ‘The state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.’
Robin Aitken is author of Can We Trust The BBC? an exposé of how the Corporation’s Left-wing political culture imperils its impartiality.