You only have until 5pm today, Wednesday 1 April, to add your voice to the government’s consultation on the fate of the BBC. The government aims to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee, undermining its funding base yet again by nearly £300m a year. That cut would come after the government has already stripped away 30% since 2010, according to an estimate by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer. To have your say and defend the BBC from politically motivated vandalism, here’s the official site.
The long-standing ambition of the Tory right, promoted by Rupert Murdoch, is to shrink the BBC into a subscription service for programming the market rejects – news, education, religion, a bit of high art and any unprofitable niches. Leave entertainment and sport to the market.
But Boris Johnson has been unlucky in his timing. This assault was launched in revenge, fresh from his election victory, to strike at his party’s old anathema. In the heat of the Brexit trauma, after an election waged across the great Brexit divide, the BBC was knocked about as the punchbag between the two implacable forces: remainers called it the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation, Brexiters attacked it as a vipers’ nest of remainiacs biased against Johnson, while the left raged at it as institutionally anti-Corbyn.
What a difference a couple of months makes. The virus has turned our national broadcaster into the great unifier, the most trusted for news, with a cornucopia of programmes for the locked-down nation unmatched anywhere in the world – and that’s fact, not hyperbole. Netflix, with its plentiful entertainments from nowhere and no time, can never fill the role. The BBC has proved itself through soaring viewing figures, including among those often hard to reach 16- to 34-year-olds. The BBC says shortly to be published figures show that more than 30 million citizens a day browse the BBC News online website; a third of the population are watching the news at 6pm. The local radio network’s phone-ins connect isolated people, volunteers and services, as 1.28 million home-schooling children use the BBC Bitesize education site. New drama and old classics join great spectacles promised to replace Eurovision and Glastonbury. A country bereft of live theatre, music, comedy, book festivals, museums and galleries can turn to the BBC’s Arts in Quarantine: look at the dazzling array.
This divided country came to blows over Brexit and a particularly bitter election, and the BBC was the anvil in those wars. Goodness knows I’ve raged at the television often enough at things that I think are done badly, at failures to call out lies in pursuit of an illusory “balance”. Slabs of BBC output will always be dismissed as rubbish by many, beloved by others. What matters is that in some corner of the BBC everyone finds something invaluable, for less than the daily price of the Sun or a Costa coffee.
Why do the Tories hate it? Because, like the NHS, it is a great public success, and that offends a deep belief that the market always does better.
Crocodile tears from this government over the poor brought to court for non-payment gives hypocrisy a bad name. In 2018 only five people went to jail, and in those cases non-payment of the fee was only one among many debts that magistrates judged those defendants were wilfully refusing to pay. If the government thinks that people are too poor to pay this fee, it could make a start by, for example, replacing the council tax subsidy it abolished. It’s estimated that 10% of people will stop paying if non-payment is decriminalised. As No 10 is reported as wanting to “whack” the BBC, does anyone think its motive is concern for the poor?
Former cabinet minister Damian Green says: “Destroying the BBC wasn’t in our manifesto and would be cultural vandalism.” Huw Merriman MP, chair of the parliamentary group on the BBC, tells the Telegraph that the national broadcaster has 80% public backing and “a vendetta” against it would be a vote-loser.
Could the licence fee be replaced with something else? The BBC in its response to this consultation makes various suggestions – attaching a fee to broadband hubs instead of TV sets is one – but none can be suddenly implemented. The government’s decriminalisation is a simple ideological cut.
What next? Mid-coronavirus crisis, is this government really going to set upon its greatest megaphone for public health messages? The long grass beckons. But should it emerge later in the post-corona world, just make sure you have made your voice heard today.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist