Just as Americans are discovering the joys of the BBC—BBC America viewership rocketed during the Iraq war—the world’s most influential and trusted media organization is up against it at home.
The drama isn’t merely over Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter whose accusation that the Blair administration “sexed up” the WMD dossier led, in turn, to the government’s war against the BBC and to the suicide of weapons expert and BBC source David Kelly. Rather, the issue with the BBC is something like the issue with all progressive governments, and benighted liberalism, and socially good intentions. Its very success—and the sanctimony inherent in its success—really annoys people.
I just got back from BBC-land. It’s statism of a high order—vast, pervasive, in every pore of everyone’s being. I went to the Edinburgh International Television Festival, which is like going to a great party congress. It is not just that everyone in UK television is there, but that everyone in UK television is of the BBC, or in orbit around the BBC, or, in some psychologically hard-to-parse way, inhabited by the BBC. It is greater than AOL Time Warner (greater than AOL Time Warner, Viacom, Disney, and News Corp. combined). Even greater in its dominance than the monopoly on political and media power held by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, who personally controls the overwhelming share of his nation’s media. And even this does not, I think, adequately describe the relationship of British media people—or, indeed, all Britons—to the BBC. The Beeb. Auntie.
It may just be more accurate to say that the BBC is Britain. Certainly, the legions of BBC defenders and partisans all but argue that there may not be a Britain without the BBC.
The fight, therefore, to protect the BBC or to dismantle the BBC is a fight for something like the soul of Englishmen everywhere.
The mood of the BBC faithful in Edinburgh was self-congratulatory (self-congratulation seems to be in the BBC DNA), but with a sneer of pugnaciousness. Take your best shot. There was, of course, in every newspaper, and in every conversation, as constant background to the three-day Edinburgh conference, the Hutton Inquiry—the blow-by-blow, who-said-what-to- whom public excavation of blame for the death of David Kelly. It was the Blair government against the BBC. Something like, people said, the independent counsel against Bill Clinton. That big. One might not survive (although there seemed to be little doubt about who might not survive).
And then in Edinburgh, in spirit if not in person, there was the BBC’s other blood enemy: Murdoch. (Murdoch’s papers, the Sun and the London Times, seemed to conclude every day in their coverage of the Hutton Inquiry that the BBC had, for all intents and purposes, killed David Kelly.)
The historic polarity in British society has been upper class/lower class, Labor/Tory, Thatcher/anti-Thatcher. The polarity was now more precisely BBC/Murdoch.
But the themes were the same. The BBC was the Establishment. Murdoch, the rude insurgent. With a certain historical inevitability on his side. Indeed, the success of Murdoch’s multichannel BSkyB—not just a satellite operation but a Murdochian news and entertainment network—was possibly the most significant business development in the UK since Murdoch and Thatcher together broke the unions.
Murdoch’s ranking British executive, Tony Ball, the CEO of Sky (BBC people refer to him as Murdoch’s henchman), was to deliver the main address of the conference, the fabled MacTaggert Lecture, which sets the theme for the British media year (Murdoch himself had delivered the MacTaggert in 1989—in a speech that people still talk about as though Churchill or Enoch Powell had given it; three years ago, Murdoch’s son, James, had delivered the junior version, the Alternative MacTaggert, as his formal debut in media society).
But beyond Blair and Murdoch, there was for the BBC, evident in Edinburgh as well as throughout the country (countless polls were cited), an even larger enemy: public disgruntlement.
It was a consumer thing. A big-government thing. A fuck-you thing. A tax thing.
The BBC, in some prehistoric media logic, is supported by a tax paid by every British household that owns one or more televisions. This compulsory tax, paid by the rich as well as the poor, arrives every year as a bill for £116 ($183). If you don’t pay it (and only 7 percent fail to pay it), the BBC can put you in jail. The tax, which like all taxes is always going up, raises as much as £2.5 billion for the BBC every year (and because there are always more households, every year it raises more). Since the BBC itself collects it, nobody in government can reapportion it or redistribute it—the BBC, unlike every other public-broadcasting system in the world, is not only well funded but well protected from politicians.
Every ten years, there’s a “charter review” in which the budget and performance of the BBC is assessed by a blue-ribbon commission. The next review is in 2006. If the BBC is the most influential institution in British life—the true monarchy—then obviously the charter review is the nation’s most profound political fight.
It’s a fight for the public heart—as well as for control of a big bureaucracy. And, of course, it’s also a fight for opportunities. About getting a piece of the pie. Or at least it’s a fight about Murdoch’s piece of the pie.
Indeed, some liberals would argue that since it is impossible to be politically successful in the UK without at least the tacit support of Murdoch, and given that Blair and Murdoch have brokered a mutually satisfactory relationship, the BBC’s battle with Blair is just another proxy battle with Murdoch.