The BBC has a durable defence of its salary arrangements. Yes, common sense suggests some of these are outrageously high (should Jeremy Vine really be paid £700,000?), but common sense can be a poor guide to salaries: many of those paid telephone number salaries by the corporation could earn more in other media outlets. Yes, the gender pay gap that the figures reveal challenges any sense of fairness (is John Humphreys really worth three times Mishal Hussain?), but the BBC has a point when it argues that the gap for its top earners is better than the national figure of 18 per cent. And, yes, much of the palaver will be driven as much by a sense of envy as by one of justice.
In any event, there is a limit to which justice can apply in a fallen world. It is deeply unfair that Zoe Caring, a paragon of virtue, throws everything she has into caring for teenage girls on suicide watch, but is paid a pittance, while Joe Braggart, an icon of self-regard, does nothing to provide any real help to anyone (other than the accountant who helpfully reduces his tax bill, as he cracks right-on jokes about the effing Tories)…and earns oodles. But that’s how it goes. Tinker all you like with pay scales to reduce the gap between top and bottom earners, and Oscar Wilde’s distinction between price and value will still apply when you have finished: the Almighty “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”.
None the less, the corporation and its stars must take it on the chin. If you are funded by a levy paid on compulsion, those who fork out will naturally be curious to know how their money is spent. So when John Simpson complains about publication of the details, he is displaying the same sense of entitlement, and lack of self-awareness as those politicians who complained of one during the expenses scandal. And the political and cultural stakes are high. It would be unfair to claim that the BBC is biased towards Labour (most of time, anyway), but the corporation necessarily has a worldview, and this turns out not to be all that different from that of taxpayer-funded institutions. The best comparison may be with the arts sector.
This matters, given patterns of news consumption. The proverbial visitor from Mars, presented on his arrival only with the Guardian, might assume from reading it that the Daily Mail dominates news consumption. But the best part of 50 per cent of news read online comes from the corporation, and when it comes to TV, radio, and print, it has close to a monopoly: over 70 per cent. The question for the centre-right is not so much whether the licence fee should survive – it is clearly unsustainable, given the changing nature of technology, even in the medium-term – but whether having a national broadcaster, and funding arrangements that seek to preserve one, make any sense at all. And there is a natural twitch to seek to pull the plug.
ConservativeHome is unsentimental when it comes to the role of the left in our public culture. So it is that we advertise some of the main public appointments each fortnight precisely in order to advertise vacancies to our readers. We are particularly unsparing if taxpayer-funded institutions are not providing value for money. For example, it is impossible to believe otherwise, if one looks at drop-out rates, employment prospects and degrees awarded in the round – one in four students, we read today, gets a first – than that academic education is too big in relation to technical education, and that Britain could lose some universities without the sector being unduly damaged.
But the bottom line question, when it comes to the BBC, is not if the licence fee is sustainable; or whether the corporation needs all its present channels and facilities; or whether its online presence, in particular, can be justified, but whether there is a need, in our public space, for a media institution that can draw people together in a polarising culture. Behind the anxiety about “fake news” is a deeper one about attention span. Social media is doing nothing to widen it. For example, there is a connection between the shrivelling of that span – and the capacity for nuance, reflection and a sense of proportion that goes with it – and the wave of self-righteous thuggery, intimidation and low-level violence that scarred last month’s election campaign.
An institution that broadcasts the annual service of remembrance at the Cenotaph, which televises the state opening of Parliament, which covers the Proms, and which shows Prime Minister’s Questions each week is worth having – as is one to which viewers naturally turn if, say, the Olympics comes to town. In short, the BBC is a counterweight to fragmentation, and one that features the World Service as well as Today, offers War and Peace as well as Newsnight, and showcases the best political broadcaster of our age, Andrew Neil. The natural urge to shout at the Today programme in the morning is not the best basis on which to plan the Corporation’s future. Like tax itself, the BBC is part of the price that we pay for a civilised society.