Lord Hall, the Director General of the BBC, has called for politicians to be removed from the Corporation’s funding process in the midst of an increasingly bruising showdown between the state broadcaster and the Conservatives.
Not content to speak in broad terms, the Director General has directly accused the Party of trying to ‘diminish’ the BBC for its ‘own narrow interests’, and claims that at present the BBC’s impartiality is compromised by political involvement.
Amongst his suggestions are the establishment of an independent panel to oversee broadcast funding, as in some European countries, or the scheduling of future renewal bids away from (currently fixed) general election dates.
But whilst the involvement of politicians clearly grates with Lord Hall, and one can see why a quango board of media types might be more appealing from his perspective, the Government should offer him a clear, one-word response: tough.
John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, is at the helm of an ambitious bid to reform the BBC. He’s examining everything from reform of the funding model to restrictions on the viewer-chasing behaviour already provided by its commercial rivals.
All of which is the proper role of the Government, for a couple of major reasons.
The first is that the BBC is effectively funded through taxation. Rather than have viewers pay for BBC services as and when they actually want them, Britons need to fork out to the Corporation for the simple privilege of watching television.
As a result, it is entirely proper for their elected representatives to be involved in the business of the Corporation. If it wants them out, it should adopt a subscription model that gives it an entirely voluntary relationship between it and those who pay for it.
Second, there’s the fact that the BBC can and does leverage its privileges into extraordinary reach. For all that Hacked Off types like to wail about the Murdoch newspaper stable, there is no more powerful and pervasive news brand in the land (especially online) than that of the Corporation.
Now of course, the BBC has a duty of impartiality – as, in fact, do all major British broadcast news providers.
But whilst nice in theory that does not disguise some real problems.
These include: the BBC’s susceptibility to political pressure from pressure groups; accusations of “liberal group think” by a former director; that it has fought to suppress internal reports on biases in its coverage; the leftward slant of its advertising locations; and its undermining of independent local media.
Evidence of a left-wing conspiracy? For the most part no, just the fact that any organisation will develop a self-reinforcing internal culture.
But the BBC, unlike a commercial organisation, doesn’t have a strictly voluntary relationship with those who fund it, so it can’t just be left to its own devices.
Any public sector organisation funded coercively, let alone a state news broadcaster with enormous influence, is inherently political. Calls to ‘take politics out of it’ are fatuous, and should be given short shrift.