Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Charles Moore is everything a BBC chairman should be: clever, inquisitive, independent, humane, well-read, polite, patriotic, broad-minded and generous to his critics. During the golden age of newspapers – roughly the years between the new technology brought in following the Wapping dispute in the late 1980s and the rise of online journalism in the early 2000s – he led the editorial field. His only rival, though their styles were very different, was The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, now being mooted as the next head of Ofcom.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked for both men. I don’t know Dacre well, but even slight acquaintance is enough to reveal the secret of his success, namely an unparalleled ability to speak to and for ordinary people. At a time when other newspapers were going online or throwing themselves on the generosity of patrons, Dacre’s Mail remained both popular and profitable. A newsman to his fingertips, he filled the editor’s chair with his restless energy and curiosity. With almost all media struggling to make money, he is exactly the regulator we need: fair-minded, diligent and committed in his bones to freedom of speech.
I know Moore rather better, having spent seven years working for him at The Daily Telegraph. He was, as any Telegraph writer of that era will attest, a wonderful boss. Patiently and intelligently, he improved every section of the paper, from the sports pages to the weekly children’s pull-out section. He always stood by his people – he once went to war against the Prince of Wales’s office because it had treated a Telegraph photographer badly – yet he was impervious to flattery. The newspaper he edited reflected his voracious interests. He cared a great deal about accuracy, and hired several Labour-leaning lobby correspondents – perhaps on the principle that a Leftist reporter on a Rightist paper would always strive to be objective.
The BBC stands to gain enormously from his involvement. As he did at each of his newspapers, he will take a benign interest in every aspect of programming, from comedy to cookery. He will ensure that the Corporation gets a sympathetic hearing in Downing Street. He will steer it through a landscape changed utterly by the rise of YouTube and Netflix. He will revive that sense of integrity and high-mindedness that we might loosely call Reithian.
This, naturally, is not the view of most Beeb staff. Have I Got News For You, the quiz show which arguably set Boris on the path to Number 10, Tweeted that if Moore became chairman, the BBC wouldn’t last another five years. One staffer described his mooted appointment as “the Corporation’s Stalingrad.”
In part, this is simply a howl of anguish from a Leftist establishment used to getting its way. It is striking how many BBC figures cite Moore’s Euroscepticism and Toryism as ipso facto disqualifications – even though the country voted for Brexit and then elected a Conservative Government. Implicit in the criticism is the notion that someone on the Right can’t be disinterested – or, more precisely, that the soft Left positions we associate with the Beeb are statements of objective fact. The ordinary viewer might think the BBC has certain prejudices – feminism good, austerity bad; immigration good, Israel bad; EU good, Trump bad – but to its editors, these are not prejudices but truths.
Moore’s critics display the close-mindedness that they falsely suspect in him. In fact, you won’t find a less partisan man. Moore started out as a Liberal back in the pre-SDP days when that party was still broadly liberal. His liberalism rested, and rests still, on a readiness to question assumptions, to think things through from first principles, to spot what others have missed. Successive Conservative leaders came to fear his pen more than that of any Labour-supporting editor.
His BBC critics, naturally, won’t be convinced by anything I write. A readiness to dismiss views from outside their tribe is part of their problem. But, if he gets the job, they will come to appreciate him.
For the BBC, as it is currently run, is obsolete. The problem is not that it is biased or expensive or out-of-touch. The problem rather, is that it is not feasible to fund a state broadcaster through taxes in an age of streaming. Yes, the BBC’s partiality has weakened it by alienating conservatives. But even if everyone agreed that it was run by the best, wisest and most neutral public servants, it would still not survive in its current form.
Some senior figures within the BBC recognise that change is coming, and want to take ownership of that change. The corporation, after all, has huge advantages. No broadcaster has a stronger global brand. BBC programmes are watched on every continent. Much of what it does would be commercially viable under any dispensation.
People are creatures of habit. Thirty years after privatisation, BT was still by far the largest supplier of landlines, with nearly 40 per cent of the market. Without the licence fee, plenty of viewers will still want to watch Strictly and Planet Earth and Eastenders. The BBC could more than hold its own as a subscription channel. Yes, some parts might be less viable than others – I never understood, for example, why the BBC felt the need to get into local radio, an area amply served by private suppliers. But there is every reason to believe that a more commercial BBC could become more popular as well as more efficient.
The way to ensure that that doesn’t happen, of course, is to resist all reform, to be dragged kicking and screaming into each new change.
A wise BBC will turn technological change to its advantage, aiming to emerge as a more successful and original content-generator while recovering its former place in our national esteem. No one would help it achieve that goal better than Charles Moore.