Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Breaking up is hard to do

Could this be the end of a beautiful friendship?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, writing in the Guardian:


While the rest of us shelter from another horrible domestic summer, lucky BBC executives have been relaxing by the Mediterranean. A Freedom of Information request by the Guardian has revealed that the corporation has been using a distant sun-kissed villa as a base for entertaining.


Meanwhile, the poor old Observer faces an uncertain future, with Guardian Media unveiling huge losses despite having made more than 300 of its staff, including many journalists, redundant over the past year. Unfair or what?

We learn that for years the corporation has regularly hired Mickie Most's old villa, at a cost to date of £90,530, raising the question of "whether it is really necessary for the BBC to commit that amount of money", as John Whittingdale, the Tory chairman of the Commons culture and media committee, puts it. "At a time when the BBC claims to be short of cash, it does seem somewhat extravagant," he says. And his colleague Ed Vaizey, the shadow media and arts spokesman, sends a starker message by saying he wants to freeze the licence fee and to sell off Radio 1.


He quotes Tories? Approvingly?

He then mentions the "instinctive reflex" of many on the left to defend the BBC, but adds that

Whatever the motives of the BBC's enemies, those reflexive apologists haven't noticed how far it has changed, in a way that reflects the spirit of the age as much as greedy bankers or corrupt MPs, and which invites serious, disinterested criticism.


Once upon a time, thinks the nostalgic Geoffrey, the BBC incarnated Reithian values of public service. "Nobody used to join the corporation to get rich". In those halcyon days, would-be trainees queued up in droves, ambitious "to make good programmes, have fun and, no doubt, meet glamorous, liberated girls". (Because they were all male, obviously.) But now it's a bloated caricature, full of fat-cat presenters and overpaid managers. Blame Thatcher, and New Labour's love affair with the rich; but from being a bastion of liberal morality (like, presumably, the Guardian) the BBC has now been horribly corrupted. On "a dramatic scale". Fifty years ago, we learn, the Director General earned the same as the prime minister. Now he earns five times as much. Plus bonuses.

Nor does Wheatcroft consider that the DG, or any of the other bonus-enhanced Beebocrats, are good value for money. He points out the double standard implicit in the BBC's own rhetoric: they insist on paying managers (and stars) market rates while clinging to the Licence Fee by claiming to be the very antidote to all that crass free market commercialism.

What [DG Mark] Thompson and his colleagues conveniently forget when defending their salaries and contracts is that the licence fee is a form of taxation, not to say a regressive poll tax. They forget that the BBC is a public corporation, and its employees public officials. Isn't it time they started behaving in a public spirit?


Well yes. It isn't simply in the matter of salaries, though, where this double standard applies. To defend the Licence Fee at its current level, which for many BBC bosses would seem to be an end in itself, they have to make programmes for the mass market. Otherwise they would risk losing public acquiescence in the continuance of their poll tax. The result, increasingly, is schedules crammed with trash indistinguishable from, or inferior to, the output of the commercial channels. The bulk of their budget - including online - is spent not on original and unique programming and content but on costly and unnecessary duplication. This has been obvious for years - though, as Wheatcroft points out, if not in quite such strong terms, such facts have done little to counteract deep attachment to the BBC felt by members of the Establishment Left in Britain. (The anti-Establishment left, by contrast, have been happy to see the corporation as a tool of the monarcho-capitalist ruling classes, but that's another story.)

The BBC and the Guardian belong together. That's what I've always thought, anyway (another way of putting it would be that they deserve each other). They share that odd combination of elitism, complacency and self-hatred that characterises that part of the British left which thinks of itself as "liberal". And both - up till now, at least - have largely been shielded from the harsh realities of commercial life. The BBC has its tax, while GMG has both the cushion provided by the Scott Trust (for the time being, at least) and its unique place in the heart of the state's advertising managers. The Guardian is taxpayer-funded in all but name (as is the vast preponderance of its readership, indeed). There may be a few less taxpayer-funded non-jobs to recruit for than usual, but advertising revenues at GMG are still less vulnerable than those of other newspaper groups. As for salaries, they aren't quite so generous as in the higher echelons of the BBC, but editor Alan Rusbridger still took home £445,000 last year - which, Geoffrey Wheatcroft take note, is almost three times what the prime minister earns. I gather darling Polly takes home a pretty packet, too.

But while the Guardian and Observer share something of the BBC's protected status, they aren't quite so cosseted. They may even be facing ruin. Perhaps that's why Wheatcroft can write that "a sharp culture shock is now needed" and that "Thompson and his colleagues, with their villas, cashmere socks and pension pot" deserve the same scrutiny as bankers and MPs. Indeed they do. But, more significantly, the figures contained in the Guardian's FOI request point up the contrast between the finances of the Left Establishment's two major cultural pillars - which, given their closeness, must be especially galling.

What's to be done? Here's a suggestion Wheatcroft might like: use some of that lovely licence-fee cash to prop up the Guardian. A state-financed public-service newspaper, I'm sure you'd agree, is just what this country needs.