The BBC Empire strikes back: will PM Boris Johnson back down?

A combination of Johnson’s vacillation, resistance, and ministerial appointments reflecting both, together with a probable reluctance to counter and overcome the BBC’s self-serving resistance campaign, make it highly likely that he will abandon pledges to reform its anachronistic and illiberal funding model 

Note: Based on, but both expanded and updated from, the articles originally published at The Conservative Woman on Tuesday 11th February 2020 and Tuesday 3rd March 2020, respectively 

Is Boris about to wimp out on the BBC licence fee?‘, I asked here on 17th February.  In the mere two and a half weeks since, the answer has hardened from ‘Hmm, maybe.’ to ‘Almost certainly.’

At that time, the original proposal, to decriminalise non-payment of the fee and possibly scrap the licence altogether, had already been downgraded to merely modifying (but, er, not before 2027) the licence fee model, and only a ‘consultation’ on decriminalisation. 

In that earlier 17th February blogpost, however, I recounted how only four months previously, the Institute of Economic Affairs had published its own ‘consultation’ in the form of its policy paper New Vision: Liberating the BBC from the licence fee, its main recommendations for transforming the corporation into a subscriber-owned mutual being summarised here.

I went on to describe the alternative explanation – for Johnson’s apparent reluctance, that is, to follow up on his initial resolve, despite evidence of substantial public support – which was suggested by academic David Sedgwick in his book The Fake News Factory: Tales from BBC-Land, and I speculated that the Cabinet and Government appointments emerging from  Johnson’s reshuffle seemed to bear this out. 

So what has happened since then?    

Well, neither popular dissatisfaction with the BBC, nor support for the drastic reform of its funding model, have subsided.  On 23rd February a new ComRes poll found 50 per cent of people saying the BBC is poor value for money, and support for abolishing the licence fee at 61 per cent.  In early December 2019, YouGov had found that 48 per cent of Britons trusted the BBC to tell the truth either not much or not at all, while only 44 percent trusted it to tell the truth a fair amount or a great deal.  In the year to November 2019, 200,000 people cancelled their TV licence, and the licence fee evasion rate continues to grow.

Trust in the BBC YouGov 01-Dec-2019

BBC 'licence-evasion' rate 2010-2018

Meanwhile, the BBC has started mobilising its forces for the fightback against what, given the evidence above, would for it undoubtedly be an existential threat.

Firstly, its main staff union, BECTU, is organising a ‘save the BBC’ petition.  

Note how merely considering decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence-fee is presented as ‘continuously attacking the BBC’.  If this isn’t with the BBC’s at least full support, if not even co-operation, I’d be astonished.  Secondly, there’s also a pro-BBC petition by the left-wing campaign group 38 DegreesAgain, I doubt if the BBC finds it unwelcome.

Secondly, BBC grandees are being wheeled out to promote the corporation’s own version of Project Fear.  Chairman Sir David Clementi led the predictable shroud-waving, conjuring up an apocalyptic vision of a Britain plunged into civilisation-threatening darkness should a distraught populace be deprived of Strictly Come Dancing, before wailing that scrapping the licence fee would ‘weaken the nation‘. 

How the nation would be weakened merely by some of its people no longer being coerced to pay for something they do not want was not immediately obvious.  Or, as Continental Telegraph‘s Tim Worstall succinctly put it, disingenuous tripe: in effect ‘Without the licence fee we’d stop making Strictly Come Dancing ‘coz we’d have no money, so we’d have to make Strictly Come Dancing in order to make money’.  

Clementi went to list examples of programmes and national sporting events which would, allegedly, not be accessible under a subscription model – a risible argument which in effect acknowledges that the BBC couldn’t make programmes of sufficient quality or appeal to persuade customers to part with their money voluntarily.  In which case, it should be asked, why should they be forced to fund it coercively?

The ‘endangering coverage of national sporting events’ claim has even less merit. Clementi completely failed to explain why, apparently, a subscription-funded BBC couldn’t bid against its rivals for the right to broadcast major national or sporting events.

Thirdly, the corporation’s reliably on-message MPs among dripping-Wet ‘One-Nation’ Tories are distraught.

The BBC is so much a broadcaster that people love, gushed political pipsqueak Huw Merriman, overlooking consistent opinion-polling reporting the exact opposite, and whose own article ironically ended with a poll in which fully 92 per cent of respondents wanted the licence fee scrapped.

Merriman poll TGraph licence fee scrapped

Merriman, incidentally, is the erstwhile sycophantic PPS bag-carrier to former Chancellor of the Exchequer and arch-Remainer Philip Hammond, content to act as his anti-Brexit plotting master’s mouthpiece, and thought to have been the anonymous PPS who forecasted that Parliament not approving Theresa May’s (non)-‘Withdrawal’ BRINO Agreement would ‘put Corbyn into No 10’.  Yet despite being a relative nonentity, he has managed to become Chair of the Commons All-Party Parliamentary Group on the BBC.  It’s likely stance on the licence fee question isn’t hard to guess.

Destroying the BBC would be ‘cultural vandalism’, hyperbolised loyal May-confidant Damian Green, studiously ignoring the fact that hardly anyone demands its specific ‘destruction’, merely the reform of its funding model to make it non-coercive.

Even ministers are backtracking furiously, running scared.  The next BBC boss will need to be a reformer, squawked former DCMS Secretary Nicky Morgan in one of those proverbial statements of the bleedin’ obvious, but curiously forgetting that it’s the Government that’s promising to require reform.

There are no ‘pre-ordained’ decisions, yapped Transport Secretary Grant ‘aka Michael Green’ Shapps, going on to label the BBC a ‘much loved national treasure’, but conveniently omitting to mention its 92 per cent ‘Bad’ rating on Trustpilot.

BBC rated Bad on Trustpilot

I suspect the strong probability is that, regardless of public opinion, a significant part of the Tory Parliamentary Party is already compromised.  And that’s before MPs start coming under pressure from astroturfing letter-writing campaigns to their local papers and similar phone-ins to their BBC local radio stations. 

In the meantime, the BBC remains able to treat its captive funders with undisguised contempt.

The Courts have refused an appeal against the decision not to grant a Judicial Review of its impartiality vis-à-vis the requirements of its Charter.  It backed its reporter who described the crowds celebrating in Parliament Square on Brexit Night as ‘too white’. Its Newsnight ‘expert on the deleterious effects of ‘austerity’’ was a far-Left activist. If its audiences hate its obsessively woke distortion of historical classics in the name of ‘diversity’, they can lump it.   

All these developments hardly suggest Johnson’s robust-sounding earlier pledges on the BBC’s iniquitous ‘licence-fee’ will be carried through swiftly and eagerly.  Or at all.  As early as 5th February, News-Watch’s David Keighley warned at The Conservative Woman that the licence fee ‘overhaul’ would be a damp squib.  Only last Saturday, the Taxpayers’ Alliance’s Sam Packer showed, also at The Conservative Woman, how the sock-puppet ‘consultation’ on decriminalisation will be manipulated to guarantee the result desired by both the BBC and its supporters within the Whitehall Blob.

So, to answer that question posed two and a half weeks ago: Yes, almost now a racing certainty.  Johnson will indeed wimp out.

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