terça-feira, 10 de maio de 2016
David Cameron’s latest battleground: the BBC
David Cameron’s latest battleground: the BBC
Government reform plans have been described as a right-wing assault on the broadcaster. But the damage may already be done.
By ALEX SPENCE 5/11/16, 5:33 AM CET
LONDON — As if fighting junior doctors in the NHS wasn’t damaging enough, David Cameron could soon be confronted by angry protests about his plans for another treasured U.K. institution: the BBC.
That’s if you believe the press coverage ahead of a long-awaited “white paper” setting out the government’s proposals for reforming the public broadcaster Thursday.
Billed by some as paving the way for the biggest shake-up in the BBC’s 93-year history, the paper will start the next phase of negotiations on the corporation’s operating charter, which expires at the end of the year. At stake is the future of a cultural colossus whose radio shows, TV programs and website are accessed by 97 percent of the British population at least once a week.
Publication of the white paper has reignited a passionate political debate inflamed by a torrent of leaks and briefings to partisan newspapers. Depending on your point of view, the BBC is either on the brink of being killed off in a right-wing coup, or is a bloated, arrogant bastion of liberal privilege raising a stink because it can’t bear the prospect of even modest changes.
Chief among their concerns is a mooted plan to scrap the existing governing body, the BBC Trust.
Among the supporters, there has been talk of protests at Westminster and of rebellion among backbench Conservative MPs. Labour’s shadow culture secretary, Maria Eagle, accused the Conservatives of “mendacious meddling.” Peter Kosminsky, director of the BBC drama Wolf Hall, used an acceptance speech at the Baftas on Sunday to warn that the BBC was on track to become an instrument of state propaganda similar to TV channels in North Korea and Russia.
Chief among their concerns is a mooted plan to scrap the existing governing body, the BBC Trust, and replace it with an enlarged board to which several directors would be appointed by the government. Ministers could keep the broadcaster in check by stacking the board with political cronies, they worry.
Various other potential changes have been mentioned which could impact the corporation’s programs and independence: restrictions to its website, a requirement to disclose the salaries of its highest-paid performers and journalists, limitations on scheduling popular programs against those of commercial TV networks.
The left’s villain of the piece
The agonizing drew scorn from the BBC’s critics on the right: “Do these luvvies not realize how bad their hysterical special pleading sounds?” the Daily Mail shot back in an editorial Tuesday.
As these critics see it, the BBC’s management and their allies in the TV industry — a “self-congratulatory bubble” of metropolitan left-wingers, as the Sun put it this week — have overreacted to the prospect of minor changes aimed at securing its future in a highly-competitive, fast-changing media landscape, at a time when public services are under financial strain.
“They hope that if they make enough noise, if they suggest that poor [John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, the minister overseeing the charter review] is trying to destroy the BBC, there will be such a public rumpus that the government will have to back down even from the relatively modest tinkering which it probably has in mind,” Stephen Glover, a veteran media pundit, said in the Mail.
Whittingdale is not the villain the BBC’s supporters have portrayed him as, but an “emollient and cautious man,” Glover said.
Publicly and privately, Whittingdale has repeatedly insisted that he’s not ideologically opposed to the BBC and only wants to examine whether the corporation’s size, scope and purpose are still what they should be, 10 years after the last charter. The questions the charter review have been asking are perfectly legitimate, Whittingdale and his defenders argue.
“The idea that I’m some sort of Rupert Murdoch puppet who has been sent in or told by David Cameron to take apart the BBC is just so ridiculous,” he told the website PoliticsHome in February.
There are plenty of people in British media circles who believe that’s exactly what Whittingdale is — a Murdoch-sanctioned assassin.
That impression wasn’t helped last week when, in an apparently off-the-cuff remark to Conservative students at Cambridge University, the minister joked that the BBC ceasing to exist was “occasionally a tempting prospect.”
“Whittingdale’s a Tory fanatic, a reckless revolutionary, driven to break what’s fixed,” the columnist Kevin Maguire said in the Daily Mirror Monday.
Trust in the Tories?
Hysteria aside, the BBC’s supporters do have reasons not to trust the government.
Months after returning to power in 2010, the Conservatives (then in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) strong-armed the BBC into a hasty financial deal which capped the annual license fee paid by households to fund the broadcaster at £145.50 until 2017. As part of the arrangement, the BBC was forced to pay for initiatives including the rollout of broadband internet to homes in rural areas, requiring the BBC to divert more than £500 million a year from other services.
Worse came last summer, when the Chancellor George Osborne pushed onto the BBC the £650 million-a-year cost of providing free TV licenses for viewers aged over 75.
The corporation will have to find an additional £800 million in annual cost savings by 2021.
Eager to reduce the government’s welfare bill yet unwilling to antagonize voters by revoking the policy, Osborne handed it to the BBC. After difficult, rushed negotiations, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the BBC’s director-general, extracted some concessions in return — notably, that the annual license fee will increase in line with inflation, as long as nothing fundamentally changes after a new charter is formally agreed. That allowed the BBC to spin the deal as reasonable under the circumstances. Yet the corporation will have to find an additional £800 million in annual cost savings by 2021, amounting to a budget cut of about 20 percent.
With services already under financial strain, that amounts to “grievous bodily harm,” Steve Hewlett, host of the Media Show on BBC Radio 4, said in an interview with the BBC’s Radio 5 Live this week.
The way the license fee deal was done — thrashed out behind closed doors with no public consultation, over a matter of days, then leaked to the Sunday Times — did little to assuage fears that the BBC has become increasingly vulnerable to meddling and bullying by politicians in Westminster. Lord Birt, a former BBC director-general, called it a “deeply shocking” deal.
In that sense, for all the bluster about Thursday’s white paper, the worst may be over.
With the biggest issue — the amount of money the BBC receives, and the funding mechanism — already determined separately from the charter process, all that is left “is quite a lot of political twitching,” as Hewlett put it.
Hewlett said he sympathized with the BBC’s worries and said there’s still potential for mischief in Thursday’s white paper, but saw no evidence of an ideological assault.
There’s no question some Conservatives would like to see a radical overhaul: A vocal minority complain that the BBC is too left-wing, pro-European, an unfair public intervention in the free market that people shouldn’t have to pay to for if they don’t want to.
It’s widely assumed that the prime minister isn’t one of them. Cameron has so far been largely absent from the public debate about the BBC, but media insiders say there’s little appetite in Downing Street for a protracted dispute. Whatever its flaws, the BBC remains one of the most popular and trusted institutions in the country, let alone the media — and Cameron may feel he has enough to deal with already.