The British Broadcasting Corporation
The Corporation Fights for Its Privileges
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Mr. Thompson made his claim that the arrogant state media giant was the greatest power for cultural good as his company was on the verge of winning its battle for the government to both renew its charter that had been due to expire in 2006 and keep the TV licensing system.
But although the BBC was allowed to continue its extortion, it was no longer able to have it all its own way. The government said it would review the licence fee system again in 2010, instead of waiting for the new ten year charter to expire. However, plans to make the corporation share some of the licence income with producers of independent regional news programmes were postponed until 2012, after the general election.
The BBC Trust
The replacement of the old board of governors with an “independent” Trust was also intended to rein in the arrogant giant. As we have seen, the BBC seemed instead to make the Trust its ally. A Financial Times editorial in January 2014 said of the trustees that "they seem to have fallen asleep on the job".
The government also agreed to increase the TV licence fee from £131.50 to £151.50 by 2012 but the BBC complained that it would be £2bn short of the money it needed. Then Director-General Mark Thompson claimed that it would be unable to improve the poor quality of its programmes without this money.
The increases in the fee was planned to be lower than the expected increases in the retail price index. At the time this was decided it seemed to mean a reduction in income in real terms.
The Real World
“Welcome to the real world” said the Financial Times when the settlement was announced. The newspaper argued that licence fee funding could not be justified after 2012.
It also believed that the government would be “highly nervous” about creating “television licence martyrs” by enforcing the licence on people watching TV on personal computers. An increasing number of people were already realising that in fact the BBC has great difficulty taking legal action against viewers who refuse to buy a licence.
This seemed like good news for civil rights advocates and critics of what one Labour MP has called the “imperial” BBC. But for the BBC and its then director-general Mark Thompson it was an important setback.
The bloated broadcaster promised to increase its output of serious programmes, shed 1350 jobs and out-source some functions to cut costs. This unusual responsiveness to public concern at a time when it has felt under threat is a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of that accountability that the company so fiercely resists.
In 2009, as criticism of its size, ambitions for growth and distortion of the market continued, the Corporation showed signs of making another concession by considering selling BBC Worldwide, its commercial operation, in what the Financial Times called “part of a wider effort to resist attacks on the corporation's scale and ambition” The annual revenue of this part of the state broadcaster was around £1bn. In 2007 it had bought the Lonely Planet travel guide business. But in 2013 this was sold at a loss of £80m. BBC Worldwide was not sold.
The Trust Goes
In 2017 the BBC Trust was shut down. Instead the BBC was to have a unitary board like that of a private company.
The first person to chair the board was David Clementi who, of course, has the title of knight under Britain's official class system. The Director General was to report to Mr Clementi.
Regulation will be in the hands of the Office of Communications (Ofcom) and the National Audit Office.
This new set-up was agreed following criticism of the Corporation both for the Jimmy Saville sex scandal and for excessive spending.
At the same time the fee that Britons must pay for a licence to watch TV was increased to £147, not enough to please a Corporation that was again under criticism for the tactics of its enforcers as they added Polish migrants watching Polish TV on laptops to their targets.
Just as the Windsor family has over many years made minor concessions to a democratic society in order to protect its feudal privileges, so does the BBC. But as with our hereditary head of state and the legislators-for-life in Parliament, its actions show that it regards with contempt the idea of true accountability to the people.
"The prospect of the UK without the BBC funded by the licence fee is anywhere between improbably to impossible because the BBC is one of the most loved and trusted UK institutions." Tessa Jowell, former Minister for the Olympics and former Minister of Culture
The elite connections that have protected the BBC in its attack on human rights have included:
Tessa Jowell. Former Minister for the Olympics and Paymaster General
Michael Grade. A Conservative Party legislator-for-life and former BBC employee. He chaired its Board of Governors from 2004 to 2006.
Patricia Hodgson. Member of the BBC Trust, and Deputy Chairperson of OFCOM (the television regulator). Former Chief Executive of the Independent Television Commission. Long-time employee of the BBC , including head of Policy & Planning.
Nick Lovegrove. Assistant to Patricia Hodgson at ITC. Formerly BBC official.
Sue Nye. Legislator-for-life. Former Special Adviser to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Wife of Gavyn Davies, former BBC Chairperson
John Birt. Legislator-for-life. Former Head of Prime Minister's forward strategy unit and BBC Directory General.
Bill Bush. Adviser to Tessa Jowell as Culture Minister. Formerly BBC head of political research.
Source: The Financial Times
The Financial Times has described Ms. Jowell as "a consistent champion" of the BBC. It said she had "defeated calls" from political allies and foes to significantly change the licence fee system. The FT noted that the Prime Minister had accepted a statement by Ms. Jowell that her husband, who has been the subject of corruption allegations in Italy, "did not tell her for four years (that) he had received a $600,000 gift".