Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Starmer inflicts a second day of sanctimony on the House

20 Apr

If sanctimony could kill, Boris Johnson would have expired yesterday afternoon, the first time his fixed penalty notice was discussed in the Commons by Sir Keir Starmer.

But to the indignation of the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister survived that ordeal.

This left Sir Keir with a choice. Having climbed up on his high horse, should he continue in the same sanctimonious vein, or might it be better to rest the subject of the Downing Street parties, which is bound before long to return, and to ask the PM about something else?

Sir Keir opted for more sanctimony. Perhaps he thought that on Tuesday he had failed to administer a lethal dose, and that by radiating sanctimony across the Despatch Box for a second day running, he could finish Johnson off.

But sanctimony can be dangerous also to whoever radiates it. The more one claims to be holier than thou, the less attractive one may sound, and the fewer friends one may find one has.

So Sir Keir decided to make some friends. It was reported that Johnson, when addressing Tory MPs last night, had criticised the Archbishop of Canterbury and the BBC for attacking the Government’s Rwanda migrants plan more vociferously than they had attacked Vladimir Putin.

Sir Keir today called on Johnson to “apologise for slandering the Archbishop”, and went on to accuse him of attacking the brave BBC journalists who have been reporting from Ukraine.

Johnson bridled: “I said nothing of the kind.” Yesterday he made a great show of contrition. Today it was equally important that he demonstrate fighting spirit. Otherwise people would think his spirit had been broken.

This accusation that he had been “traducing journalists” showed, the Prime Minister declared, that Sir Keir “must be out of his tiny mind”.

Johnson also found occasion to call Sir Keir “a Corbynista in a smart Islington suit”. After all, had not Sir Keir campaigned at the last general election to have Jeremy Corbyn made Prime Minister?

Politics is often a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils: a point which sanctimonious politicians refuse to admit.

Eliza Easton: If the arts and culture are a third front in the Ukrainian war, here’s what Ministers should do

31 Mar

Eliza Easton is Head of the Policy Unit, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC).

The Prime Minister has promised to pull every lever he can to help the people of Ukraine in the war against Russia. State and sector-led sanctions have become a focus for the Government in a war where it feels that it can’t commit boots on the ground.

The headlines have been dominated by state economic sanctions, but cultural sanctions offer significant advantages. While economic sanctions can harm citizens as well as leaders, cultural sanctions may be able to grow the anti-Putin Russian population without putting them into material poverty. In short: they offer an untapped reserve of options to help Britain to achieve its strategic aims.

Cultural sanctions have been spoken about by policymakers – particularly by Nadine Dorries – but they are not enforced by the state. It has fallen to individuals, arts organisations and industry to decide what and who to cancel.

This has bred controversy. How could it not? Glasgow Film Festival spent two weeks addressing the fallout from cancelling two Russian films from directors who have nothing to do with Putin’s regime. The New York Times has reported that one has Ukrainian roots, has denounced the war and has a grandmother hiding from the bombs falling on Kyiv. Eventually, it was revealed both films had received Russian state funding.

On the other side of the coin, we have seen big names questioning the wisdom of banning Russian artists. Julian Lloyd Webber has pointed out how powerful it can be when you let artists play.  He recalls Mstislav Rostropovich playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto at the BBC Proms with “tears pouring down his cheeks” after the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. Lloyd Webber argued that this “spoke more than words” and, implicitly, more than sanctions could.

The fact that the Government ’s promised Soft Power Strategy remains unpublished (replaced by a short section in the Integrated Review) has left those cultural organisations keen to follow official advice rudderless.

Instead, we find ourselves in a bizarre reality, whereby often low paid communications assistants are trying to communicate complex diplomatic statements to the world on Twitter.

We need a systematic approach to cultural sanctions, although not one mandated by the Government: perhaps Putin himself could attest to the fact that soft power approaches work better when not forced by the heavy hand of the state.

Instead, when our Government introduces state sanctions against another country, it should trigger a conversation convened by the Government between relevant industry players and arms length bodies – i.e: the arts councils, the British Film Institute, the British Fashion Council – and the British Council. Together, they should agree on a suggested approach for individual creative companies and charities, informed by intelligence from both cultural and diplomatic experts.

There are risks if the Government doesn’t use its convening power to help the sector to pursue such an approach. While the public mood prevents cultural events which might sanitise Putin’s position, the news cycle may move on, and industry sanctions may be at odds with public interest.

Equally, smaller organisations may unknowingly undermine the sanctions upheld by larger organisations, cancel anti-Kremlin artists – or simply go too far and play into Putin’s hands.

We have already seen the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra heavily criticised for the decision to remove Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture from their programme: a move surely made with good intentions, but which dangerously plays into Putin’s narrative of Western ‘russophobia’ – and one that he has moved to exploit.

Such a directive would not (and, in my view, should not) stop artists from performing in Russia or Belarus if they wish to, although once guidelines are in place it becomes a much more political decision for those artists to take.

When Frank Sinatra went against United Nations’ advice and performed in South Africa, the public outcry did aruguably more for the anti-apartheid movement than for those paying him millions of dollars to improve their public image.

Organisations would also still be able to choose to boycott, regardless of official state sanctions – and they might. It was revealed just last week that some of the largest cultural institutions, including the V&A, British Museum, National Gallery and the Tate, did not sign a cultural agreement between the UK Government and Saudi Arabia, aiming to strengthen cultural links between the two nations.

The best example of this approach so far comes in a statement from Arts Council England. This advised publicly funded arts organisations to cancel events which involve Russian or Belarussian state-sponsored and/or state-funded organisations, echoing similar statements from other sector bodies.

But the Arts Council went further in their advice to grantees, recommending, for example, that “organisations do not require Russian/Belarussian artists to issue a statement condemning the war in Ukraine as a condition of contract.”

People on social media had already started to identify and hound individual artists. It is sensible that Arts Council England point out that artists need to be able to make their own choice on whether to speak out based on their particular situation and the risk involved. We need consistent messaging across the entire cultural sector to avoid ostracising those who might condemn the conflict in private, and become important allies in the future.

Alongside directives of this kind, I suggest the Government ensures there is a budget to support those organisations who incur financial losses from cancelling performances, at least in the short term.

Following a pandemic which hit arts and culture hard, cancelling that tour may be the final blow for organisations which have been encouraged, by the Government, to be more international. This is the first time cultural sanctions have been recommended by a UK Government this decade, but it is unlikely to be the last. They should see this as a test case.

Advice on cultural sanctions should only be the start of a re-invigorated soft power strategy. As Julian Lloyd Webber hinted, our current approach means we are not taking advantage of the soft power opportunities we have.

While sanctions are a useful tool, opportunities to speak to the Russian public are going to be important too. We know that the numbers listening to BBC World Service in Russia have risen to from three to more than ten million each week. We should go further. Why should the cancelled London Fashion Week in St Petersburg not be an opportunity to profile those designers speaking out against Putin? Why shouldn’t London Film Week be an opportunity to show ‘dissident’ film makers? Which stars could follow in Arnold Schwarznegger’s footsteps and use their platform to make a compelling plea for peace?

If, as Dorries has said, culture is “the third front in the Ukrainian war”, then we need to start seriously – and the sector and the Government need to give it budget, strategy and diplomatic support.

Arminka Helic: The BBC is our greatest weapon against Russian disinformation in the Balkans

25 Mar

Baroness Helic is a Conservative Life peer.

Alongside Russia’s war in Ukraine is a war on truth. Vladimir Putin prepared the ground for his invasion through the press and broadcasters. Russian state media and their proxies spun lies about the Ukrainian government being run by Nazis and drug addicts, and invented atrocities to blame on Ukraine.

As quick victory has eluded the Kremlin, Putin has doubled down. All independent media and reporting have been banned in Russia. Social media have been restricted. By suppressing information, the Russian government hopes to hide the horrific cost of its war – first and foremost from Russians.

Worryingly, it is not just Russia where the Kremlin’s lies are printed without question. The Russian state has actively worked to build its propaganda machine abroad. This has been true here in the UK: in the last decade, for example, Russian media such as RT and Sputnik spread lies about Russia’s activities in Syria.

It is most visible, though, in the Western Balkans.

Sputnik and RT have a significant presence in the region. Sputnik’s Serbian-language reports are provided free to local media, who – often desperately short of funding – reproduce them wholesale. Truth is squeezed out.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina – where Sputnik also has a large number of Facebook followers – the Russian agency has extensive connections with local media, who blindly publish its disinformation.

It is closely aligned with local secessionists, and readily attacks their political opponents as western puppets and threats. It works closely with the media channel ATV, controlled by the separatist leader Milorad Dodik, sanctioned by the United States in January. It portrays NATO as a threat, and Russia always as a friend.

In North Macedonia, NATO’s newest member, Sputnik continues to try to stir up the disputes and grievances which previously prevented membership, seizing on any opportunity to emphasise division with neighbouring Bulgaria. Despite having failed to prevent North Macedonia’s NATO entry, Russia still dreams of using the country to undermine the alliance – and hopes to block any moves towards EU membership.

The situation is even worse in Serbia, where the dominant government-controlled media echo the Kremlin’s propaganda. Read Serbian dailies, or watch the state news channel, and you would believe that the Ukrainian government are killing their own people. That they are Nazis, shooting civilians in the back – a claim which resonates in the Balkans, where Yugoslav identity was built in part on stories of resistance to Nazi atrocities in the Second World War.

Polling in Serbia shows strong support for Putin, and a belief that Russia is the main power Serbia should depend on for its security.

For a decade, the Kremlin has sought to sow division in the Balkans, and to exploit the region as a weak point within the heart of Europe and NATO, through which to cause division and instability.

While we give Putin’s propaganda free reign, he can succeed. If the dominant media narrative is of Russia as a friend and NATO as aggressive, of democracies as weak and autocracies as effective, there can be little hope for long-term stability and prosperous relationships.

These ideas and attitudes cannot be reversed overnight. But we do have a tool to challenge them: free and independent media, who report impartially, diligently, bravely. In Ukraine, journalists are on the frontlines to bring us news unfiltered by the Kremlin’s propaganda department. As Putin has sought to restrict the press and reporting in Russia, the BBC have been taking steps to ensure that truth can still be heard.

The BBC and its reporters are renowned around the world. But we have not been giving them the support they need. As too often, we have looked at a great national institution and found ways to criticise it, rather than to improve it.

Instead, we should value the role that BBC journalists fulfil in challenging propaganda through their fair and determined reporting. And we should recognise the part that they can play in defending against Putin’s war on the truth.

In the Balkans, I believe we should increase the funding for the World Service’s local language journalism, so that BBC reporting can compete with the distortions of Sputnik, RT and state-controlled media. Sputnik is able to propagate its disinformation through local media, in part because of consistent efforts to squeeze funding for the independent press.

To counter this, we should fund the expansion of existing BBC services in Serbia, and extend provision into Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia. We should support them to provide BBC bulletins and coverage to other broadcasters in the region, so that local media have a genuine choice. And we should resource the sort of innovative approaches now being adopted for Russia, where the BBC are taking to platforms like TikTok to reach audiences otherwise cut off.

We will not change minds immediately. But by ensuring that Russia’s voice is not the only one in the Balkans, and that the impartial, scrupulous reporting for which the BBC is renowned can be heard, we can expose RT and Sputnik for what they are. We can challenge the Kremlin’s narratives, and provide an alternative to their lies.

And we can offer a reminder to the citizens of the Balkans, that aggression and autocracy are not the best foundations for a society, but that prosperity is best served by a free press, respect for rights, and democracy.

Sarah Ingham: The BBC licence fee makes no sense in our digital age

18 Feb

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Our small screens have had a good pandemic.

Ratings surged as house-bound Britain turned to box sets. Hovering around $330 at the start of 2020, Netflix shares went through the $700 barrier last autumn. Who didn’t want to escape the reality of being stuck at home with Chris Whitty for the scripted reality of luxury real estate, perfect teeth and power heels in Selling Sunset? Squid Game (Korea), Fauda (Israel) and Call My Agent (France) were glimpses of a world beyond a tepid staycation in Devon.

And for those who haven’t had enough of big pharma over the past two years, there is now Dopesick on Disney+. Over on Amazon Prime, Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age swaps Downton for New York’s Upper East Side and Burke’s Peerage for the Social Register.

We are undoubtedly living in a golden age of television. Or rather of content that would once have been watched on a television set, where we originally watched The Sopranos episode-by-weekly-episode, just as earlier generations thrilled to that other family drama with a high corpse count, I, Claudius.

The acclaimed togas’n’tunics series, made by the BBC in 1976, features in Time magazine’s 100 Best TV Shows of All Time. It can now be streamed via Apple TV. Those holding Apple stock in the past two years would have seen the price go from around $73 to almost $173.

Approaching its centenary, the British Broadcasting Corporation does not have to concern itself with matters like shareholder value. Like the old money oligarchs of The Gilded Age, the BBC is cushioned by vast unearned income. It can afford to look down on upstart start-ups, whether comparative minnows such as GB News and Times Radio, or mighty YouTube – from which about a quarter of US adults get their news, according to a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center.

Auntie Beeb and her cheerleaders will point to 2021 ratings as proof of her popularity. Aside from the 2020 Euros and the PM’s announcement of lockdown on January 4 – surely an unexpected winner – it had Top 10 hits with Strictly Come Dancing, Vigil and Line of Duty, whose final episode drew 15.2 million viewers.

It is perhaps the Strictly factor that makes the Government hesitate to kill off the licence fee, despite its almost 80-seat majority. Smashing the glitterball and unpicking the sequins would be a dismaying prospect to millions of viewers, who are also voters.

Last month, following the announcement that the licence fee would be frozen for two years, BBC boss Tim Davie implied the future of BBC2, BBC4 and Radio 5 Live could be in doubt. If he had wanted to engage Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and the Indignants of other leafy constituencies, this was a far shrewder pick of stations-in-jeopardy than, say, Radio 1 or the soon-to-be revived BBC3.

Does the end of the current BBC funding model really mean the end of broadcasting Glasto/EastEnders/David Attenborough/Radios 3 and 6? Or of Wimbledon fortnight uninterrupted by ad breaks? Given the chasms which could apparently open in Britain’s cultural landscape, no wonder a minister even as doughty as Nadine Dorries backs off from any absolute commitment to abolish the licence fee.

The TV licence is, however, an analog anachronism in our digital age. It is time it was axed and the Corporation funded by subscription.

In 2020-21, the licence fee raised £3.75 billion, accounting for 74 per cent of the BBC’s £5.06 billion income. A recent You Gov/Times poll found that only one in 20 of those aged 18-30 watched any BBC channels live every day, compared with almost half of people aged 65 or above.

A television-set tax makes no sense in an era when millions of us are choosing to subscribe to streaming services and are watching what we like, when we like, on our mobile phones and tablets.

A public service broadcaster is the more creative branch of the Civil Service. Like most in Britain’s bloated public sector, it is great at splurging other people’s money. With no need to earn its keep, is it surprising that the £££s the Corporation fritters away on taxis and diversity officers are a tabloid staple?

Supporters claim the BBC represents brilliant value – 44p a day. They overlook the mutual dislike between the BBC and its paymasters, that is, the listening and viewing public. Many resent being legally coerced into funding a service whose worldview is completely at odds with their own.

The national broadcaster should aim to be a neutral in Britain’s cultural skirmishing. As Oliver Dowden stated in his recent speech to the Heritage Foundation, “There has always been a tendency among cultural and educational elite to serve their own interests rather than serve the public at large.”

If the BBC is really serving Middle Britain, it seems odd it lost Bake Off and turned down the revived All Creatures Great and Small, now a hit for Channel 5. Clarkson’s Farm has done more to entertain, educate and inform us about rural life than the clunkingly woke Countryfile or The Archers.

In 2013, the updated House of Cards became the gateway to Netflix for many. Three years later, The Crown pulled in even more new subscribers. Starting in 1997 as a DVD rental company, Netflix is now making Academy Award-winning films and is streaming in 190 countries. In 2020, it generated almost $25 billion in revenue and had an operating profit of $4.5 billion.

Meanwhile, over to the cultural blob that is our aged national broadcaster… In 2020, 55,061 of the nation’s citizens were prosecuted for TV licence evasion. Of the 52,477 convicted, 76 per cent were women, who were unlikely to have been among the most affluent members of the public.

And how absolutely fabulous is that, sweetie darling?

Britain’s strong response to the Ukraine crisis cannot mask decades of strategic failure

25 Jan

One can easily imagine the heavy-handed cinematography of some future documentary or drama. As Westminster is consumed with increasingly absurd stories of parties in Downing Street, British diplomatic staff and their families are being pulled out of Kiev.

Doubtless to the astonishment of the sort of analyst who insists that such things simply cannot happen in the Current Year, there seems to be a growing consensus that Russia is going to invade Ukraine. To some, the question is whether they will stick to the east or cross the Dnieper (or bypass it, via Belarus) and attack Kiev itself, perhaps installing a new regime.

As we noted a few days ago, Ben Wallace has actually steered the UK towards the forefront of the international response.  Britain has taken the lead in airlifting military supplies, and NATO allies both in Washington and Eastern Europe have noticed.

But there is little hope that this support would actually equip Kiev to defeat a full-blown Russian invasion. Likewise talk of fresh commitments of troops to the region by the US are confined to NATO members, such as Romania. Nobody in the West is talking about trying to fight a ground war in the Ukraine.

This poses two difficult questions for the Government, and indeed perhaps for every NATO government.

First, there is what to do in the event of an invasion. A military response is off the table. But the usual Western weapon of economic sanctions may also prove difficult to wield.

Germany is already striking a cautious note, which is not surprising as Berlin has wilfully and discreditably increased its dependence on Russian gas by shuttering its nuclear power stations. But if Moscow decided to weaponise its energy exports, the impact would be felt in the UK too, pushing prices up just as the Government is preparing to sail into the teeth of a cost-of-living crisis.

Moreover, as Adam Tooze explains, the Russian Government, having restructured its debts and built up one of the largest foreign currency reserves in the world, is also much better prepared to withstand what limited sanctions may be brought to bear than it was in the past.

This doesn’t leave Britain completely empty-handed. Ministers could push for more engagement with the Russian-speaking world via the BBC World Service, although this might prove an awkward conversation for Nadine Dorries. They could push for a fresh round of sanctions on oligarchs and other individual Russians, although these will likely be resisted by the Treasury.

Likewise, any attempt to use the E3 as a forum for pushing Germany towards a tougher stance will run up against the dire state of Anglo-French relations.

All this points to the bigger problem, which is simply that the UK (and its allies) seem not to have a coherent strategic approach towards Russia. Successive governments have compounded year-on-year defence cuts with a posture that prioritises participation in the South China Sea over the ability to make a material contribution to a European theatre.

There has been no sustained effort to develop national energy independence – in fact, in 2017 the Government shuttered the UK’s principal strategic gas reserve.

Perhaps worst of all, in the specific context of the looming crisis, in 2008 it was New Labour which helped to broker the worst-of-all-worlds deal in which NATO committed to admitting Georgia and Ukraine without giving them any actual support, simultaneously maximising the provocation offered to Moscow whilst minimising any actual benefits to the two nominal beneficiaries.

If Vladimir Putin does launch the sort of full-scale land war Europe was supposed to have consigned to history, one silver lining might be that it provides a rude awakening to a criminally complacent post-Cold War establishment. But the price for sounding that alarm will be paid by Ukraine.

James Frayne: Voters are largely supportive of the BBC licence fee being frozen – but don’t care so much about accusations of bias

18 Jan

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Nadine Dorries’ announcement of a two-year freeze in the licence fee – while hinting the Government will force a subscription model on the BBC in the longer-term – suggests the Government believes serious reform of the BBC could be electorally popular. Is the Government right about this?

Let’s look at the licence fee to begin with. I last researched the licence fee in an autumn poll on living standards for the TPA. It revealed the following:

(a) The TV licence was named the second least fair tax from a range of options, marginally below inheritance tax. It was seen as the least fair tax amongst 18-24 year olds, women, working class voters and Leave voters (not your classic mix).

(b) On the flip side, just eight per cent thought the licence fee was one of the fairest taxes, compared to, say, 26 per cent who named alcohol and tobacco duties as fair.

(c) Given a list of taxes the Government could raise to pay off Covid debts, the TV licence was joint-bottom, along with council tax.

(d) Given a list of taxes the Government could cut after Covid debt had been reduced, the TV licence was mid-table: below income tax, council tax, NICs and VAT; but above several others.

(e) Incidentally, just seven per cent thought the TV Licence brought in a lot of revenue for Government.

This is just a handful of datapoints from one poll, but others have shown the same results over the last few years. Despite the limited scope of the change – a temporary freeze, not a cut – this should be a popular move.

It’s strange that senior BBC execs have expressed surprise at the freeze. The polling – coupled with fractious relations between the Government and BBC – meant this was on the cards for two years. The BBC has always been confident that support for a licence fee cut would erode as people considered the content that might be lost. We’ll see; maybe the polls will shift a little.

However, a big shift is unlikely: while a minority of people will change their minds as they consider things properly, most won’t give this a second’s thought – and vast numbers will be far more focused on their disposable income. Irrational or not, the licence fee is disproportionately hated because, like council tax (and to some extent, inheritance tax), people effectively write a cheque for the money – which drives them crazy.

Another reason why support for the freeze is unlikely to flip is the recent coverage about what BBC stars – from both entertainment and news – are paid. In a time of falling living standards, it won’t be credible to plead poverty while paying vast sums to so many people.

It isn’t yet clear if the Government will open a broader front and force a debate on the entire model of BBC funding in the short-term. Despite the build up at the weekend, when it came to it in Parliament yesterday Dorries only vaguely hinted at it.

The popularity of such a fundamental reform is far from assured, but nor is it inconceivable. However, if the Government is serious about genuinely changing the BBC’s funding model, the one way to lose the debate is to focus on apparent “BBC bias”. It was a mistake for Dorries to have made this point so high up in her statement. Almost no one truly believes the BBC is riddled with bias and it makes politicians sound weird when they assert it.

The Government will be on much surer ground if it justifies change on the basis of changing social habits. Dorries did prepare the ground for this yesterday and this was the most persuasive part of her statement. As I wrote here almost exactly two years ago, apathy towards the BBC is increasing. Very large numbers of people just don’t see the point in the BBC because they rely on other platforms like YouTube, Netflix, Prime, Apple TV and all the rest. This is certainly true of entertainment, but it’s also true of news; huge numbers of people pick up news in snippets, from a range of sources, all accessed via social media. Fewer and fewer people seek out news on dedicated platforms.

Despite this, it is here, in this more fundamental debate, where the BBC’s defence is more powerful. Far more people will be persuaded about their warnings of the impact of other methods of funding – which will make people ask whether the country would be better with the BBC (or BBC News, at least) in roughly the same form than it would be without it. Large numbers of people still rely on the BBC News website and on the main bulletins. Broadcast news is dwindling, but it surely has a medium-term future.

Coming back to the original question: is the Government right to assume that clipping the BBC’s wings is popular. In terms of freezing the licence fee? Yes, definitely, unless they completely mess up the communications. In terms of more fundamental change? It’s hard to see what the Government would gain from forcing the debate now; better to just wait to see where things are in a few years. They should certainly avoid boring everyone to death about what lefties the BBC are. No one cares.

Johnson and Dorries are not quite so hostile to the BBC as they pretend

18 Jan

On Sunday, Nadine Dorries tweeted: “This licence fee announcement will be the last.” On Monday afternoon, her department put out a press release which declared: “No decision on the future of the licence fee has been made.”

At the same time, Dorries told the Commons over and over again that she just wants to start a debate about the future of the licence fee.

What is going on? The Prime Minister needs to shore up his support in the parliamentary party, and bashing the BBC is one way of doing that.

“Nadine clobbers ‘biased’ BBC with £2 billion funding cut,” The Mail on Sunday reported, and went on:

“The BBC was last night on the brink of a war with the Government after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries hit the Corporation with a two-year licence fee freeze – as her allies warned that ‘the days of state-run television are over’.”

Dorries duly announced that the licence fee has indeed been frozen at its current level of £159 for the next two years, and will then rise by the rate of inflation until the end of 2027.

If Boris Johnson were not in such trouble, the settlement would have been “more generous”, an insider confirmed. Things changed “very suddenly” a few days ago.

No plan exists for what happens after 2027. A source with comprehensive knowledge of thinking within the DCMS yesterday told ConHome it was “unrealistic” to suppose the BBC could move to a subscription model by then.

There are technical limitations: streaming services are only available if, no matter how old, poor and technologically ill-equipped one may be, one has some device on which to receive them, and the superfast broadband to deliver them.

Beyond that, decisions have to be made about what the BBC is going in future to provide. It is not difficult, unless one is among its most highly paid employees, to see faults in the Corporation, and to note the unseemly relish with which it joins in the ancient British sport of hunting down whoever happens to be Prime Minister.

What is more difficult is to determine which parts of the BBC should, indeed must, be preserved. The World Service, most people would say, at a time when the Chinese, the Russians and others are pumping out their malign and mendacious versions of events.

To destroy the rest of the Corporation’s news gathering abilities would seem to most of us like an act of vandalism. Various other parts of its output could likewise be agreed to come under the heading of public service broadcasting: coverage of state occasions, Parliament, some of the musical, educational and children’s programmes, a list which can be lengthened or shortened according to personal taste.

Much of what the BBC does, though anomalous, is not contemptible.

And then there is the question of the BBC’s role, comparable to that of the NHS, as a great unifying national institution, whatever objections may be raised to how it is actually run.

In the conservative view of the world, institutions which have existed for a long time usually deserve a degree of loyalty, and should be adapted to changing circumstance rather than abolished.

But how to adapt the BBC, when broadcasting is changing at such astonishing speed, with the rise of powerful new competitors such as Netflix and YouTube?

Many of the young find Netflix more diverse, and more representative of the world they know, than the BBC now is. They are accustomed to paying subscriptions, but averse to paying the licence fee.

John Whittingdale, a former Culture Secretary and Minister of State for Media, yesterday reminded the House that the number of television licences bought last year fell by 700,000.

At the start of the month, Whittingdale gave an interview to the in which he suggested:

“Is it not better to fund a core BBC package through a central government grant and taxation?

“Instead of £159 a year, it would be a reduced amount to pay for the things an insufficient amount of people would be willing to pay for – news, current affairs and arts programmes.

“On top of that, two-thirds of the current fee could be a voluntary subscription (for populist programming).You wouldn’t have to pay it.”

The former minister said this was a “progressive” solution, removing the inconsistency of a “flat rate, poll tax” compulsory licence fee, which could have cross-party appeal.

One rather doubts whether either the Prime Minister or the Culture Secretary wishes to go that far. They wish to show the Thatcherites in their ranks how bold they are, without actually destroying or even much diminishing the BBC.

Karen Bradley: The Government should think twice about privatising Channel 4

13 Jan

Karen Bradley is a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and is MP for Staffordshire Moorlands.

It may not be the highest-profile job in the cabinet but, in terms of the breadth of the issues it covers, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is one of the biggest.

From broadband to broadcasting, from print media to social media, from opera to football, from castles to libraries, DCMS has a role in some of the most important and life-enhancing elements of British life. Every incoming Secretary of State has to set their own priorities whilst also inheriting a huge set of pressing decisions from their predecessors. That was true for me when I was given the job in 2016, and it’s true for Nadine Dorries now.

One issue which was handed to me when I entered the department, and which has been left on Nadine’s plate too, is the future of Channel 4.

Then, as now, that was an open question, with privatisation a live option which I seriously considered. The case for privatisation of Channel 4 has been made repeatedly over the years, ever since its creation by Margaret Thatcher in 1982 as a publicly-owned but self-funding free-to-air public service broadcaster – a vital addition to the media landscape which has more than justified its existence over almost four decades.

It is a case that has to be listened to – and I did listen to it, as I know Nadine will. But in the end, I decided that while Channel 4 needed some quite significant changes to the way it was run, its ownership model was not part of the problem.

What is unique about Channel 4? Unlike other public service broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 5, and unlike paid-for streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime, Channel 4 produces none of its own programming: it is what is called a publisher-broadcaster.

This means that it relies more than anyone else on independent production companies for its content, therefore commissioning work from a wide range of UK businesses, large and small, and playing a crucial role in helping them get started and stay viable.

Indeed, around 15 independents a year get their first ever TV commission – their first break – from Channel 4. This makes Channel 4 perhaps the most important start-up incubator in the TV production industry.

That doesn’t mean that nothing ever needs to change. The media industry has always had a London-centric bias, and Channel 4 has been no exception. That’s why, along with deciding against privatisation, I encouraged Channel 4 to build a major presence outside London – and I’m delighted that its new Leeds HQ opened in September 2021.

Leeds represents not just a symbolic move, but a real shift in Channel 4’s focus, creating jobs and opportunities outside the capital and helping to make sure that a national broadcaster has a national mission that benefits the whole of the UK. Its new regional sales and creative hubs in Manchester, Glasgow and Bristol are making a major contribution to that too. Channel 4 has committed to commission at least 50 per cent of its content outside the M25 by 2023 – far more than the 35 per cent it is required to commission, and far further than any other public service broadcaster. That is levelling up in action.

I don’t believe that the move to Leeds – which Channel 4 initially resisted – could, or would, have happened under a private ownership model. I don’t believe that a private owner would freely choose to commission from as diverse a range of independents as Channel 4 does. The incentives for a new owner to move production – including out-of-London production that meets Channel 4’s Nations and Regions quota – to in-house studios, for the sake of economies of scale and rights retention, will be very strong, and I worry about the knock-on effect in terms of lost commissions for independents, especially small and regional ones.

Any conditions placed on a sale – such as a requirement to keep the HQ in Leeds, or imposing a higher regional quota on Channel 4 than on anyone else – would reduce the attractiveness and price to a potential buyer. A far simpler solution is to keep Channel 4 where it is.

As a Conservative, I have no instinctive preference for public ownership. However, when it comes to thinking about broadcasting and our world-leading creative industries as a whole, the Channel 4 ownership question has to be about the best way of supporting private enterprise and promoting Global Britain. It is also especially important to consider what is best for start-up companies in the TV and film production sector all around the UK. That was Margaret Thatcher’s vision, and I hope it will be Nadine Dorries’ vision too.

Eco guilt around childbirth lets politicians off the hook

13 Nov

Yesterday a rather strange article appeared in my Twitter feed (what’s new?). BBC Scotland reported that “Gas and air is the most popular pain relief in childbirth, but many don’t realise its climate impact.”

The piece told the story of Sinead Lavery, a “climate conscious” woman who had recently given birth using gas and air, a method which typically harms the planet. As the article warned: “The Entonox she was breathing in contains nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas which lasts around 100 years in the atmosphere”. Shock, horror!

Luckily for Sinead, midwives were able to use a new machine, which destroys the nitrous oxide and converts it into harmless gases. But what about those who do not have access to this technology? That is the question you are left with from this piece, which inadvertently shames women for needing or wanting pain relief. Are they supposed to grin and bear childbirth to save the planet?

The idea of an eco-friendly birth, however, has not come out of nowhere. Nowadays women – and indeed men – receive many societal messages about the dangers of procreation, apparently now up there with plastic for its detrimental effect on the planet. There is, for instance, the growth of “Birthstrikers” – women who refuse to have children until more is done to end climate change. “I’m just so terrified of what my child will be facing when they are my age”, said one in an interview with The Guardian.

Even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle famously told British Vogue that they would only have two children to be eco conscious. When environmentalism has become as much of a fashion as a necessity, it’s easy to see how others could follow this trend; that someone might feel guilty, even, should they want a third child.

With the growing “eco guilt” around childbirth, we seem to be forgetting something rather important. Something so staggering as to make the BirthStriker movement look utterly redundant. Last month it was reported that the fertility rate in England and Wales had fallen to its lowest level since records first began in 1938(!) – to 1.58 children per woman in 2020. The average age of new mothers is 30.7 years.

This surely should make everyone panic, not least the Government. It has embarked on a huge spending programme, but where are all these future taxpayers it’s counting on? That the UK has an ageing population seems neither here nor there to the Treasury.

In general, there’s real complacency around our birth rate. Numerous articles have been written about why it has decreased, but often they treat women like Sex and the City characters – too busy sipping cocktails and thinking about their careers to have babies. That or women don’t understand their biological clock. Maybe these explanations are easier to deal with than the real ones.

Look around and it’s not hard to spot why people aren’t having as many children. Take last year’s finding that people in their mid-30s and mid-40s are three times more likely to rent than 20 years ago, and one in three of the millennial generation never expected to own their own home. With tenants in London spending 40 per cent of their income on rent, how is having kids in any way feasible?

The truth is that “eco guilt” has merely become a distraction from these matters. Politicians should be focused on making conditions easier for people to have families. But why bother when we can debate the merits of nitrous oxide instead?

When did PSHE grow so big and become so woke?

2 Nov

Last week, Girlguiding, the leading UK charity for girls and young women, caught my attention – and many other people’s – when it tweeted in celebration of Aceweek, “a time to raise awareness and understanding of the asexual community.”

It paid tribute to “all” of its “asexual volunteers and members” in a post that raised a lot of questions about the purpose of the organisation. What is Brown Owl doing, after all, lecturing on this matter – as opposed to teaching girls about, say, how to put up a tent?

Forget camping trips and frolics with friends, though, it seems that girls are learning about a whole host of psychosocial matters when Mum and Dad drop them off at Brownies. Indeed, Girlguiding’s Twitter page is littered with posts about “microaggressions” and diversity and inclusion, among other things.

In one post, Girlguiding warns that “88% girls aged 7-21 feel it’s urgent that we do more to protect the environment.” But why are children as young as seven even being polled on eco policy? You might ask. Is this what we want after-school clubs to focus on?

Unfortunately, Girlguiding’s Twitter feed seems emblematic of a wider trend, which is the PSHE-ification of Western society. Organisations increasingly believe it’s their role to lecture children on the birds and bees (or neither, in the case of asexuality), and everything in between.

PSHE, as many will know, stands for Personal, Social and Health Education. Back in my day that was learning about sex, drugs and eating disorders, among other interpersonal issues. Lessons lasted an hour maximum and were not the dominant feature of a child’s education.

In 2021, however, the number of social issues a child is supposed to know about goes much further, and delves into completely fringe territory. A BBC film to support PSHE in schools, for example, taught children that there are 100 or more gender identities.

Schools are also expected to teach kids about mental health and emotional wellbeing – something I fear leaves them more confused than empowered. How will young children be able to tell the difference between normal sadness, or if they have this thing their teacher told them about – depression?

Furthermore, children are learning about climate change, with no consideration for how scary some of this information is. So in depth is their knowledge, apparently, that a group of eight to 12-year-olds were recently sent to Downing Street for the “Children’s Climate Conference”, where they grilled Boris Johnson on his policies. 

It’s hard to believe that we have a Conservative government while this PSHE-ification phenomenon intensifies. We seem to talk more about these matters than traditional parts of education, and it’s become the default for the state, teachers and organisations – essentially anyone other than parents – to take ownership of personal development.

At the risk of sounding like Mary Whitehouse, I should point out that I’m not against PSHE lessons, per se; for some children, sex education is vital in homes where parents don’t want to talk about it. But it’s the extent to which PSHE now dominates education, the scope of what it covers and its lack of political neutrality – especially in the case of climate change – that is troublesome.

The PSHE-fication of our society goes further than schools, though; it now seems that in almost every area of our lives we are offered some sort of pastoral care. As Andrew Gimson recently wrote for ConservativeHome, one of the areas the nation is most bossed around over is climate change.

And, indeed, with the advent of COP26, I have been amazed at the amount of moral guidance I have received by way of adverts. My Twitter feed has had many from eco conscious companies, telling us all to do more. Eastenders and other TV shows have even embedded environmental lessons into their storylines. Industries seem to have forgotten their primary functions – to sell, entertain, and the rest, appointing themselves the teacher at school to our childhood selves.

Sadly the public does not seem resistant to this occurrence. The pandemic, in fact, reinforced people’s urge to be parented, from whether they should wear a face mask to the politics of eating a scotch egg in a pub. The apocalyptic warnings from COP26, where attendees can only wash their hands in cold water (for sustainability purposes), hint at how the state – and others – could next direct our lives.

Either way, we are heading in the wrong direction. That Girlguiding now opines on asexuality should be a wake up as to what is now prioritised in education. It’s time to let kids be kids, and for the adults to grow up.