Daniel Hannan: Clever, inquisitive and, crucially, independent, Charles Moore would be the perfect BBC chairman

30 Sep

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.

Darren Grimes: Not even Charles Moore can save the BBC

23 Sep

Darren Grimes is a political commentator and is content creator at Reasoned UK.

When the former editor of the Guardian and exemplar of metropolitan liberalism, Alan Rusbridger, tweets about it being “inconceivable that someone fined for refusing to pay a licence fee” could become Chairman of the BBC, readers of this site could be forgiven for assuming that I would be a fervent supporter of such an anti-licence fee appointment.

After all, anyone who could robustly challenge this anachronistic and regressive form of taxation on anyone wanting to watch live television, from within the behemoth itself, would surely pave the way to reforms that we at Defund The BBC want to see, right? I’m afraid I’m not so optimistic.

Charles Moore, the fantastically eloquent former editor of the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator is reportedly Downing Street’s favoured choice to take over at the Corporation as Chairman when David Clementi’s three-year term expires in February 2021.

Such a move, argue proponents of licence fee reform – and those in favour of bringing the BBC more in touch with the public it is supposed to serve and unite – would send a strong signal to the upper echelons of the Corporation that this Government means business, and isn’t afraid to set a conservative cat among the uber-woke pigeons.

But I’m afraid we are way past the point of message-sending being enough to save the BBC from itself. Earlier this month, some hopeful conservatives were hailing Tim Davie, the latest Director-General of the BBC, as a man with a plan that could save the broadcaster from Titanic-like disaster.

Consider, for example, reports that Davie was set to tackle “perceived left-wing comedy bias” as he arrived, dressed in jeans, for his first day in the job. At this point, Frankie Boyle seems to have decided to ask Davie to hold his beer – and watch how it’s done.

During his BBC Comedy New World Order show, in which humour masquerades as virtue signalling and applauding each other’s woke credentials, so-called comedian Sophie Duker cracked a so-called joke about killing white people.

She said: “When we say we want to kill whitey, we don’t really mean we want to kill whitey,” before adding, “we do”. The rest of the panel quickly realised there is no way in which they could surpass what Duker had just contributed to the wokeometer. The BBC has refused to be drawn on the row over the show. So much for challenging left-wing ‘comedy’.

The Corporation’s new boss also spoke about cost-saving measures. The BBC’s rich list was published last week to much outcry: in total staff pay has soared from 3.5 per cent to £1.5 billion, while the BBC pushes ahead with its plans to strip a million over-75s of their free TV licences.

Gary Lineker earned a table-topping £1.75 million in 2018/19, and the Guardian reported that he has agreed to a pay cut – a new five-year contract worth a quarter less than his current one – adding that Gary “knows his responsibility to the BBC in terms of his use of social media”.

Yet as soon as the first shoots of change were beginning to sprout, Lineker dismissed the Guardian’s report of the story as untrue, and said that the Corporation recognises he “tweets carefully”. In what reality? Lineker has a history of virtue-signalling on Twitter on everything from the English Channel crisis to Brexit, and all semblance of impartiality is thrown from the window. So, no change there either then.

To rub further salt in the wound, Zoe Ball is now earning £1.3 million, after the BBC pledged to tackle the gender pay gap. She got a £900,000 pay rise, despite losing a million listeners last year. Would this be allowed to happen in the private sector just to fiddle their gender pay gap statistics?

And as the BBC spends our own cash on lecturing us about what good value for money the licence fee is and boosting their diversity, you’d be forgiven for believing that the liberal bastion’s only diversity issue is its lack of diversity of thought. But it now seems to be intent on getting rid of the much-loved 64-year-old Sue Barker from A Question of Sport. The only under-represented groups on our screens are the disabled and the over-50’s.

Why should we believe that any new Chairman could have any meaningful impact and deliver change, when the new Director-General has seen his pledges fail in his first month in the job?

What it all boils down to, ultimately, is that we, folks, are utterly powerless to do anything about this. Just to watch our telly sets, we are forced to fund the salaries of those that luxuriate in millions of pounds, pay for hate-filled so-called comedy and put up with right-on woke opinions that blatantly breach impartiality rules – or face the threat of prison. It’s just not on, and the licence fee should have been decriminalised yesterday, never mind today.

We at Defund The BBC will not be pacified by totemic position holders, even one as gifted as Moore, and it would seem the public agrees with us. We’ve already raised £60,000 in our crowdfunding efforts from those that recognise that the licence fee is a regressive anachronism in the modern broadcasting world.  And it’s time for the Conservative Party to pull its finger out and drags the Corporation, against its own will, into the twenty-first century and back in touch with the public that it purportedly serves.

Philip Booth: The BBC should be owned by subscribers

29 Aug

Philip Booth is Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The BBC has come under severe criticism recently for the way in which it seems to be ditching the nation’s history, apparently because many of the party pieces at the Last Night of the Proms are anachronistic.

As many people who understand the origin of the words of “Rule, Britannia!” and similar songs have pointed out, the BBC seems to be totally misguided. However, there is a deeper irony here. The BBC itself is a living, walking, talking anachronism.

The BBC has been financed by a hypothecated tax levied on television sets since 1946. The link between television sets and watching mainstream television no longer has any meaning.

In the UK, 18-34-year-olds watch seven times as much Netflix and YouTube as BBC1 content, and spend more time watching Netflix and YouTube than all other public service channels put together. The average time spent by all adults watching Netflix and YouTube is greater than the amount of time spent watching BBC1. Interestingly, most non-broadcast content is now watched on a television set.

The idea of linking the funding of a television channel to the ownership of a television set does not belong in the 21st century. Collecting licence fees in relation to the use of other devices is unenforceable.

The BBC tells us that compulsory licence fee funding is appropriate because the channel brings the nation together. But, not only are young people not sitting in front of the fire with their parents watching The Generation Game any more, they are enjoying their own ‘shared experiences’, without the BBC. Amongst young people, the proportion of shared viewing of content is increasing dramatically, and the length of viewing sessions is increasing.

The economic case for licence fee funding and compulsory funding of the BBC has evaporated, and the BBC no longer makes such a case. The case it makes is basically cultural. But broadcasting has become like publishing became in the 18th and 19th century, and nobody argues that a state-owned publisher, funded by a tax on books, would add to culture.

Around 200 years ago, in the publishing industry, technology improved, raw material costs fell in real terms and real incomes rose. As a result, publishing blossomed.

A similar phenomenon is happening in relation to broadcasting and content provision today.

In both broadcasting and streaming, there is a huge variety of genres, delivered in different ways through different platforms and responding to different tastes and by different organisations. This is similar to how bookshops, libraries, pamphlets, novels and newspapers all proliferated in the nineteenth century: in 1898 there were around 400 publishers in Britain and Ireland alone. The growth in publishing both encouraged and was encouraged by a growth in literacy. Good quality literature was read and literature from the period is still read today. We did not need a state-funded publisher to produce great books.

The parallels between publishing and broadcasting continue almost down to fine details. In publishing, as well as a variety of formats (magazine, newspapers, serialisations, books and pamphlets) there was also a variety of payment mechanisms (subscriptions to series or serials, pay-per-chapter, pay-per-book and subscription to lending libraries, which would allow readers to read as much as they wished in return for the subscription).

Surely the BBC should be funded by subscription by those who wish to avail themselves of its services. There is no justification in the modern world for requiring people to pay for television services they do not wish to watch. But this leads to the question of the ownership of the BBC. If it remains a state-owned corporation it will surely become an irrelevance.

Even if politicians thought a commercial sale of the BBC desirable, surely that is not on the table (though this should be pursued for Channel 4). Perhaps we should consider something else. In a thriving free economy we see a wide variety of ownership arrangements. And, in the field of culture and education, mutual, co-operative and similar forms of ownership are very common.

There is a strong case for turning BBC subscribers into owner-members so that the BBC would become a subscriber-owned mutual. In fact, this was the Peacock review’s preferred model. It would be very difficult for a subscriber-owned mutual BBC to be captured by closely connected political and commercial interests as its ownership would be dispersed. But it would be possible for it to expand into the 95 per cent of the English-speaking world that lives outside our shores through joint ventures and wholly-owned subsidiaries.

We should not pretend that a subscriber-owned BBC will not remain a participant in the left-dominated culture wars. The executives will not necessarily reflect the views of the members (as we have seen with the National Trust). However, we should be able to choose whether we support the BBC with our wallets.

Whatever the economic and cultural arguments for compulsory licence fee funding (and they are very weak), there is no moral case for requiring people to finance the BBC if they have no interest in its services.

If Hall really wants to defend the BBC, he should confirm the Proms’ traditional line-up

24 Aug

When I last wrote about the BBC, back in May, I pointed out one of the big advantages enjoyed by the Corporation in its battle with the rather ragged forces of the ‘Defund the BBC’ brigade.

This is the sheer breadth of its coverage. Full-spectrum attacks on the BBC, motivated by unhappiness with some of its political coverage, mustvlook very strange to the huge numbers of people who mostly experience only its drama or entertainment programming.

But I also pointed out that this was no grounds for complacency. The collapse in trust amongst Conservative voters will only embolden its critics in the parliamentary Conservative Party. The long-term security of an institution depends on it commanding strong bipartisan support.

Which is why it is so strange, with so many potential opponents circling in the water, that the BBC has allowed itself to get embroiled in a row over whether or not to cut popular, patriotic songs from the line-up of Last Night of the Proms.This is precisely the kind of thing which is likely to cut through with people who aren’t keeping track of the ideological balance of the Question Time panel.

It isn’t yet quite clear what the motivation is. According to the Times, the team overseeing the programme are “concerned about how to strike a sombre tone during a global pandemic and how to respond to the ongoing debates over race equality.”

There are also questions over whether some of these tunes can be performed effectively without the usual massed choir and audience. But if that really is the reason, it was extremely foolish to let that get muddled up with talk about the ‘Black Lives Matter proms’. And there is something chillingly cynical about the conductor’s reported belief that ‘a ceremony without an audience is the perfect moment to bring change.’

Coming as it does alongside the National Trust’s announcement of huge cuts to its programme – and the planned conversion of many of its country houses into ‘venues for hire’ – it feeds an impression that the institutions charged with maintaining parts of our national heritage playing fast and loose with that responsibility.

Previous Conservative governments have shied away from grasping the nettle of BBC reform, but such attitudes will not prevail forever. Tony Hall, the outgoing Director General, clearly recognises that the Corporation needs to be fought for and is in the news today selling it as ‘the nation’s voice’.

His cause would be much better served by confirming that the Last Night of the Proms will feature its traditional line-up, and the Corporation’s huge resources will be bent to the task of finding innovative ways to deliver it if required.

Darren Grimes: Why I’m backing this new campaign to defund the BBC

1 Jul

Darren Grimes is a political commentator and is content creator at Reasoned UK.

It’s safe to say that the BBC has had a terrible Coronavirus war.

Allowing itself to become the propaganda wing for Black Lives Matter protestors; dismissing one protest in particular that injured 27 rank and file police officers as ‘largely peaceful‘. The Corporation has decided it can use our own money to tell us what to think further still – removing Little Britain from its increasingly skewed iPlayer content. It then announced it would spend £100 million of our dosh on producing “diverse and inclusive content”, when its only diversity problem is its lack of diversity of thought.

At the weekend, the BBC even went as far as to say gay men who exclusively fancy men are transphobic, placing itself at the very front of the barricades of the culture war that we appear to have imported from the United States. In a BBC News piece on Pride Month, the (since removed) bit of text told us that: “discrimination also extends to what some people describe as transphobic preferences in the dating world: from cisgender gay men not wanting to date trans men”.

A gay man exclusively fancying men? “Bigotry!” says Auntie Beeb.

Readers of this column will be aware many things grind my gears, but having to pay the BBC to watch Newcastle United get thrashed in real-time, via a Now TV subscription, is one thing that I find staggeringly incomprehensible. As if being a NUFC fan isn’t punishment enough? To watch any live telly, I have to pay for the BBC in its entirety, even if I watch none of it. Funding right-on Gary Lineker’s large pay packet with the threat of prison if I do not.

It might well have made sense when my mother was a child to ensure that house number 48 couldn’t pick up the signals from number 47 for nothing, using just a TV set with an aerial or even a coathanger, but the world of broadcasting has changed. Back in my mother’s day, there existed no technological mechanism to charge people based on what they actually wanted to consume.

Choice in television has since exploded. More than 480 channels are available to every UK TV viewer, as well as an abundance of other streaming services: people are now used to paying a subscription for the telly they want. With an understanding that if you don’t pay the fee, the only penalty you face is that those channels are switched off.

That’s not the case with the BBC’s Telly Tax. It’s single mothers like mine that are hardest hit by non-payment of the licence fee. Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that 72 per cent of cases, or 93,319 of 129,446 prosecutions in 2018 were brought against women. If you ask me, that’s too high a price to pay just to keep Strictly Come Dancing on free-to-view telly.

And then there are young people. It was reported in December that around 18,000 people under the age of 20 have been prosecuted in the last five years. Surely the liberal do-gooders advocating decriminalisation for middle-class coke sniffers, to protect young people from a criminal record that they deem to be a minor or harmless activity, must now recognise the human cost to young people and women from criminalisation for non-payment of the telly tax?

The same bunch that opposed Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax must surely be opposed to the BBC’s poll tax. A tax imposed on those who are increasingly likely to watch little or no BBC output, but must pay the £154.50 a year tax, regardless of income, to watch a TV set.

Inevitably, all of those arguing that our courts are overstretched, seized-up and that the justice system must be better funded, will recognise that substantial resources are taken up with thousands of prosecutions for non-payment of the licence fee, right?

If you have read all of these arguments and heard them all before, many have not. That’s why I’ve decided to join the Defund The BBC campaign, which is now managed by the same set of seasoned campaigners behind StandUp4Brexit, who held our parliamentarians’ feet to the fire in ensuring that our voice and our vote for Brexit was listened to. They want to do that again with the BBC.

Defund The BBC want to make the case to the public, lobby our Government and stiffen the resolve of our parliamentarians to do something about the biased, bloated, antiquated and regressive BBC. Anything you can donate to their crowdfunding efforts will boost their campaign to secure the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee by the end of 2020, and to fight for a commitment from the Government to change the Charter, so that its remit covers only BBC channels and content.

Our broadcasting and streaming habits have left the 1970s days of aerials and coathangers behind them, it’s about time that the regressive and antiquated BBC funding model – with its real, present and tragic human cost – was dragged into 2020 with them.