BBC You Later

Tony Ball.Photo: Chris Young/Press Association

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 aMurdochian 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. Except. 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.

Britain’s independent television—ITV—was supposed to be the alternative to the BBC. ITV would pay a licensing fee to the government (£300 million a year—plus a commitment to do public-service broadcasting) in exchange for broadcast spectrum. But after a litany (often repeated in Edinburgh) of bad business moves, the fate of ITV now hangs in the balance (new legislation clears the way for it to be bought by foreign companies). So Murdoch’s Sky (which, delivered by satellite, does not use the public airwaves and hence pays no licensing fees) has become the alternative to the BBC—and Murdoch doesn’t want to be just the alternative. Tony Ball’s speech to the Edinburgh delegates (his speechwriter is Alastair Campbell’s former speechwriter) was a kind of corporate nailing of the thesis to the door. It was an attack on not just the BBC tax but the position of the BBC in British life.

Ball is an arrogant, dismissive (close to bitch-slapping), charming, rail-thin, nattily dressed Thatcherite (or Murdochite). He delivered a speech of casual provocations. He proposed, with a virtual twirl of his virtual mustache, that the BBC (BBC1, BBC2,BBC3, and BBC4, along with radio and Internet properties) be required to license its most successful content (EastEnders, for instance) to its commercial competitors. It could then, Ball reasoned, use that money to develop other shows in the public interest. It was not so much a call for the end of the BBC as a wicked proposal to simply downgrade the enterprise. The BBC, in his vision, would be a pale alternative (a kind of PBS) to the mainstream, protean, market-efficient Sky. There is an ideological purity to this fight. It isn’t just a business battle. In fact, the BBC, which does not take advertising or sell subscriptions, does not really compete with Sky—at least not for money. The issue here is influence. Dominance. Brand. The Foxification of England—indeed, the word Fox was uttered with a complex shiver of fear and fascination by the Edinburgh delegates.

Lots of people in Edinburgh (other than the BBC bigwigs, who were appalled) liked the Ball speech. They were intrigued. Or entertained. Indeed, many of these 1,700 members of the British television industry seemed to be professionally restless—no longer convinced of the virtues of proper British television. As the BBC became larger, and more successful, and more determined not just to embody good intentions in broadcasting but to win the ratings war (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was originally a BBC show; and as Ball pointed out, the BBC has paid £10 million to show Harry Potter on Christmas Day), it became harder to defend the sanctity and purposefulness of the Beeb. A symptom of this restlessness was to be enamored of the U.S. media market. To believe that, out from under a regulated, supported, well-intentioned, paternalistic media system, professional life could be fun, exciting, creative (if also vulgar), and profitable. There was even a session that discussed the value of an English accent when it comes to breaking into the U.S. media. It fell to Greg Dyke, the director general of the BBC, and the second-most-powerful man (or, possibly, the most powerful) in the UK, to make the defense. Dyke is, appealingly, the diametric opposite of Ball—a short, bald, Cockney, humorous, sympathetic bloke. But he had two disadvantages. He was disinclined to talk about what his audience was most interested in—Gilligan, Campbell, Kelly, and Blair—and he had to defend some hoary abstractions. To wit: The BBC should exist, and continue to exist, and grow ever bigger, because it reflects “our culture, our tastes, our values.” It’s the glue that binds the nation. Hmmm. All just a little too British (even for the British). Not to mention, Dyke had the polemically and politically difficult task of defending entrenched power. Defending even entitlement: “the compulsory levy,” as Ball called the BBC’s tax.

And yet, to a large degree, he did it. The packed audience was back in the fold of the BBC by the time he was finished—not least of all because the choice was the BBC or Murdoch. They make each other possible, perhaps. It’s a perfect alignment. The BBC now derives much of its identity, along with its justification for constant expansion, from its implacable fight against the Murdoch beast; likewise, Murdoch derives much of his purpose from opposing this most egregious of liberal bureaucracies. This may just be some quaint, hard-to-understand British rivalry, an artful balance of interests as opposed to our own Hobbesian media anarchy. On the other hand, it may really be a genuine fight to the death (you might even argue that the death of David Kelly has as much to do with the Blair-Murdoch grudge against the BBC as it does with the war in Iraq). It could be the final Murdochian win: taking the BBC down. But I’m not sure I’d bet against the BBC. It could be the last unassailable state.

BBC You Later