The current spat over whether or not the British government exaggerated claims about possible Iraqi deployment of weapons of mass destruction is bringing low two icons of the new Left there. It is now accepted that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor (who once claimed he was “more spinned against than spinning”), will be leaving government service once the furor has receded. Blair will miss his services immensely. Less ephemeral, however, will be the effect on the other icon: the British Broadcasting Corporation. Its days as the vast spider in the center of Britain’s broadcasting web look to be over.
The BBC was to all intents and purposes founded by an old-school paternalist centralizer, Lord Reith of Stonehaven. He believed strongly that the BBC should become a single broadcaster for the nation, bringing news and culture to those who had never experienced either before. Reith felt the BBC needed “the brute force of monopoly” in its mission to “inform, education [sic] and entertain… [and] bring the best of everything to the greatest number of homes.” Reith was very much an establishment man. During the 1926 general strike, he argued that the BBC ought to support the government absolutely, because the BBC was the people’s service and the government the people’s government.
Reith also viewed as morally repugnant the idea that broadcasting services should make money, and expressed horror at the advent of commercial television in 1956. “Somebody introduced Christianity into England,” he told the House of Lords, “and somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague, and the Black Death. Somebody is minded now to introduce sponsored broadcasting…Need we be ashamed of moral values, or of intellectual and ethical objectives? It is these that are here and now at stake.”
Lord Reith’s paternalism and moralizing stance, if not his moral views, were taken to heart by his successors. They reacted to the challenge of commercial television by building a vast monolith of a broadcasting empire, funded by a poll tax known as the License Fee that is levied from anyone who owns a television, whether they watch the BBC or not. The BBC’s moralizing tone extends to regular justifications for this fee broadcast on the supposedly commercial-free service (the BBC has never had any problems with advertising its own wares) that trumpet “the unique way the BBC is funded.” This supposedly allows the BBC to take commercial risks with “dangerous” new comedy shows or high-minded documentaries. The fact that Comedy Central and the Discovery Channel produce such “risky” programs as South Park or helped the BBC produce Walking with Dinosaurs seems to escape the BBC’s notice. As Homer Simpson said when he accidentally donated money to PBS, “it’s an honor to give ten thousand dollars. Especially now, when the rich mosaic of cable programming has made public television so very, very unnecessary.”
Yet it is in the area of news broadcasting that the BBC seems to have crossed its Rubicon. As many conservative politicians and journalists attest, the BBC has demonstrated a left-wing bias against them for many years, arguing during the years of Thatcher and Major that it had a duty to question closely the government of the day. Yet this duty was noticeably absent during the first term of Labour government under Tony Blair. The BBC was accused by many of being the government’s cheerleader, asking softball questions and allowing the government to duck the difficult issues while it casually dismantled the nation’s institutions and calmly announced that ancient civil liberties such as trial by jury needed to be “modernized” (i.e. abolished).
Yet this all changed when Tony Blair decided that it was right to back America in the war on terror, and things came to a head with the diplomatic crisis before the war on Iraq. The tale of how the BBC alleged that Alistair Campbell had “sexed up” the intelligence dossier praised by Colin Powell in “inserting” a claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in only 45 minutes against the advice of the intelligence services does not really need to be repeated here. The suicide of the journalist’s main source, Dr. David Kelly, has received a great deal of publicity, yet the BBC stands by its allegations.
This has drawn down the wrath of New Labour. The most authoritarian government of recent years now stands squarely opposed to the greatest of Leftist institutions. Its fury has been unleashed, and Gerald Kaufman MP, a figure of great moral authority within the Labour party and chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversees the BBC, has pronounced that the BBC has made a grave mistake. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the BBC’s actions might prove fatal, concluding:
As recently as a year ago, it was taken for granted that [the BBC’s royal] charter and license fee would be renewed [in 2006]. Now, such an assumption might be mistaken.
All sorts of new agendas may be possible. One is a BBC, still in the public sector, that is governed not by a charter but by the same sort of communications act as the other broadcasting organizations. It cannot be ruled out that funding may come not from the license fee but from subscriptions. A minority, increasingly vocal, advocates the privatization of the BBC.
It may in any case be regarded as anomalous that a broadcasting organization that spends £2.5 billion a year should continue to be funded as it was 81 years ago and organized as it began to be 76 years ago. If the government recognizes those anomalies and acts to rectify them, the BBC may find fewer friends than it would like to protect its present privileged and ossified existence. Running that sexed-up dossier story may turn out to be the costliest mistake the corporation’s bosses have ever made.
These are harsh words from a powerful figure, and can be taken as indicative of the level of anger directed at the BBC from the New Labour establishment.
The BBC would become the latest in a long line of British institutions that had their over-mighty political pretensions cut down by privatization or marginalization. The centralized power of civil-service “mandarins,” for instance, was sharply reduced when Margaret Thatcher hived off large parts of their empires into separate executive agencies in the 80s. I can imagine the BBC going the same way, with its monolithic structure divided into separate bodies such as BBC Radio, BBC Light Entertainment, BBC Natural History, and so on, all of which could be run be different providers in future.
The great irony will be that this greatest and most-needed of all privatizations will probably be undertaken by a center-left government that shares Lord Reith’s paternalist instincts. The people’s government has decided that the people’s broadcaster no longer represents the people. In that at least the Blairites are correct.
— Iain Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.