by Kevin Meagher
Why should the BBC be immune from public spending cuts? This is the question Grant Schapps should have raised in his interview with yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph.
But instead the Conservative party chairman fell back on the familiar trope that the Corporation is some haven of left-wing zealotry and anti-Tory bias.
It’s of course a silly argument to prosecute when you consider the Corporation’s Political Editor, Nick Robinson, is a former activist in the Young Conservatives, its main political interviewer, Andrew Neil, is an adent Thatcherite and its chairman, Lord Chris Patten, is a predecessor of Schapps’ as Tory chairman.
The BBC does indeed have a bias, but it’s towards a metro-centric liberalism that despises traditional right-wing and left-wing politics and any opinion not originating from within its rarefied cloister.
The real issue with the BBC remains its humungous cost. The £3.6 billion a year that the BBC spends is seemingly immune from the harsh economising facing every other inch of the British public sector.
Auntie’s annual budget dwarfs the £3.5 billion to be spent on affordable housing over the next four years. And over the five years between 2010 and 2015, the BBC’s total domestic budget will have been £22 billion – half the proposed cost of HS2.
Schapps was on sounder footing, though, in criticising the BBC’s culture of exceptionalism. His calls to see the BBC fully comply with Freedom of Information requests and to open its accounts to the National Audit Office are perfectly in order. As is publication of all expenditure over £500 – a move already commplace in local and central government.
“They have ended up working in this culture which is buried in the last century, which is ‘we are the BBC, we do what we like, we don’t have to be too accountable’,” he rightly pointed out.
At this point, Labour should add, “hear, hear”. The words ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Savile’ are the last that are needed when it comes to underlining the BBC’s culture of secrecy and lack of transparency, let alone the soaraway costs of middling executives and overpaid ‘talent’.
The BBC should face salary caps – for managers and performers alike – and more downward pressure on its operating costs. As I argued in our recent book: ‘Labour’s Manifesto Uncut: How to win in 2015 and why’ , the whole of the BBC, save for essential London-based services, should be relocated to Salford to join the five departments already housed at MediaCity.
This would save money and spearhead the development of the creative sector in other parts of the country. The National Audit Office has shown the initial transfer came in on-time and under-budget and “maintained broadcast continuity.”
Politicians across the board should now be pressing to ensure we get more bang for our buck when it comes to public service broadcasting. Already the BBC is being forced to offer-up some of its funding to kickstart the 19 local television stations that are due to spring up all over the country in 2014.
With a remit to produce locally-focused content they are a better representation of public interest broadcasting than the BBC’s vanity stations, BBC3 and Radio 6 Music. The license fee could also be further top-sliced to help fund more talk news radio at a local level, where the BBC enjoys a near monopoly.
“Mr Shapps is right that transparency is key to the future of the BBC. So is its freedom from political pressure” was the arch response from a BBC spokesman who didn’t appreciate Shapps’ intervention; nor the fact that the license fee is a poll tax on ordinary people, which has kept performers like Jonathan Ross in the lap of luxury, courtesy of his infamous three-year £18 million contract.
The BBC is a great British institution, but not one that’s infallible. If we’re not prepared to ringfence spending on our schools, it seems perverse that we are doing so for millionaire chatshow hosts.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut