Helena (hinshack) wrote in ontd_political,

Jonathan Freedland: The BBC is caving in to a Tory media policy dictated by Rupert Murdoch

Like a man who fears he's about to get knifed in the heart, so plunges the blade into his own leg instead, the BBC has decided its best strategy for self-preservation is to suffer a little pain now to avoid a lot of pain later.

The strategy review unveiled today offered up a couple of radio networks and half its web pages by way of a sacrifice. The latter sounds like a smart decision. The core business of the BBC is broadcasting – it's there in the name – and if it has to make a choice between radio, television and an uncountable number of web pages then radio and TV should always come first. (Full disclosure: I present The Long View, an occasional series on BBC Radio 4.)

But the axing of 6 Music and the Asian Network looks so dumb, you almost suspect it's a ruse. What better way to demonstrate the depth of public affection for the BBC than to trigger a Twitterwave of protest? If it's not a stunt, it's hard to explain why the BBC would cut two networks that all but embody the corporation's mission. 6 Music exists partly because if it wasn't there, the market would never invent it: a specialist channel offering not the hamster's wheel of a repetitive playlist but curated, eclectic music. "Like friends playing each other bits from their record collections," Jarvis Cocker said yesterday.

As for the Asian Network, the BBC director-general says British Asians will now be served across the rest of the BBC's output. Sounds nice, but something tells me Radio 2 is not about to clear its schedule for an hour of Bollywood and bhangra, or current affairs in Bengali. So those programmes – a perfect example of the BBC serving the entire nation – would be lost.

With luck, the BBC Trust will see sense and veto those two proposals, deciding that since 6 Music only costs £9m and the Asian Network £12.1m – sums that would barely cover Alan Yentob's taxi bill – axing them is not worth the aggravation.

In need of more attention might be the services for teens. I don't pretend to be a regular user of Switch or Blast, but I'm troubled by the BBC's argument that its role in providing for teenagers will be "secondary" to that of Channel 4 and others. Troubled because the corporation's future depends on Britons getting the BBC habit early. Troubled too because the move is a concession to the whiskery rightwing argument that the BBC should meet only those needs that are not provided for elsewhere. If the BBC has no need to address teens because C4 already does that, why does it bother with sport, given that Sky does that; or news, since there's always ITN? Follow that logic, and the corporation would end up exactly where its commercial rivals want it to be: as a subscriber service for a handful of tiny audiences whose niche tastes are so unprofitable no one else will cater to them. The strategy review should have held firm on the principle that underpins the universal licence: that everybody in Britain should get something from the BBC.

So why has Mark Thompson done it? Because he feared that if he didn't jump from the second storey window, an incoming Conservative government would push him off the roof. He is right to be anxious. The Tories have indeed signalled a hostility to the BBC that is rare, if not unprecedented, in an opposition. Why might that be? Two words: Rupert Murdoch.

People often speak of the unique influence of the media magnate, with his combination of economic and political muscle, but "influence" doesn't quite capture it. Instead David Cameron has simply allowed News Corp to write the Conservative party's media policy.

Start with the BBC. Murdoch, with son James, can't stand it – regarding it, a senior figure in broadcasting tells me, as "like the Ebola virus: they can't destroy it, so they try to contain it". They dress up their opposition in pseudo-intellectual free market blather, but the reality is much earthier than that: the BBC is a rival, and therefore an obstacle to their commercial ambitions. The smaller and weaker the BBC becomes, the more money News Corp can make.

So the Murdochs constantly demand a cut in the licence fee. Last year Cameron nodded dutifully, and called for an immediate freeze in the licence fee. That would have marked an unprecedented break in the multi-year financial settlement that is so integral to the BBC's independence – preventing it from constantly having to make nice to the politicians to keep the money coming in.

Second only to their loathing of the BBC is the Murdochs' hatred of Ofcom, the regulator that stands between them and monopolistic domination of the entire UK media landscape. They particularly dislike Ofcom snooping into pay-TV, an area that makes billions for Sky. How odd, then, that a matter of days after the regulator published a proposal that would have forced Sky to charge less for its sport and movie channels, Cameron, in a speech on quangos, suddenly singled out Ofcom, suggesting it would be cut "by a huge amount", possibly even replaced altogether.

That's the pattern in one area after another. James Murdoch laments the success of BBC radio in outstripping the commercial alternatives. Ed Vaizey, the Tories' would-be broadcasting minister, suggests selling BBC Radio 1 and letting commercial stations use the frequency.

Sky wants to keep exclusive access to the Ashes, rather than seeing them return, free to air, to the BBC or C4, and the Conservatives agree. Not at first, it's true: initially they quite liked the idea of "listed" sports events, of such national significance they would be available for everyone to see. But someone must have had a word with the shadow culture secretary, because the position was soon straightened out – in perfect alignment with Sky's.

Any doubters should play a game of spot the difference. Hold a copy of James Murdoch's 2009 MacTaggart lecture in one hand, and a clutch of Tory policy positions on the media in the other. Then see if you can tell them apart.

The unsophisticated will imagine this works crudely, with Cameron pulling out his notepad and taking dictation from Uncle Rupe. And maybe it does. News Corp's latest preoccupation is gaining access for Sky to the wiring that delivers broadband, the "ducts" currently wholly controlled by BT. Interesting to note, then, that Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of the party high command dined with the News International top brass in Davos in January – only for Osborne to announce that very week that he wanted to break up BT's monopoly on those "ducts".

Perhaps this is merely a happy alliance of like-minded folk who share what culture secretary Ben Bradshaw calls a "free market fetishism". Maybe the Tories coolly weigh up the policy alternatives, with no thought to the endorsement Murdoch's Sun has given them and withdrawn from Labour, and just happen to reach a conclusion that matches News Corp's business interests perfectly.

Rather more likely is that a Conservative government would repeat one of the ugliest chapters of the Bush-Cheney era, when the White House allowed the oil and gas industry to write its energy policy. When it comes to media, the Tories are already doing that – handing the pen over to Rupert Murdoch. Don't say we weren't warned.


It perplexes me that only a few people have commented on the political ramifications of the review, especially in light of a possible Tory government.
Tags: bbc, conservatives, rupert murdoch, uk
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