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Monday, July 06, 2015 

The beginning of the end.

Deals made in secret are always bad deals.  It's not always instantly apparent which side has come out the loser, but in the instance of the BBC versus a Conservative government, anyone betting on the side of the public service broadcaster is on a hiding to nothing.

Those with long memories might recall this is almost precisely what happened 5 years ago.  Back then, at least Mark Thompson talked a good game ahead of conceding pretty much everything: a pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of the UK creative economy, he said in his MacTaggart lecture.  Lecture delivered, the then director general accepted a freeze on the licence fee right up until 2016/17 without anyone else being consulted.  In retrospect, thanks more than anything to the world finally noticing that phone hacking had been a thing, kiboshing News Corporation's dreams of swallowing Sky wholesale, it wasn't the worst of deals.  Yes, there have been cuts, but the BBC is pretty much doing what it did in 2010, if not frankly better.

To repeat the process, as DG Tony Hall now has, was asking for it.  Rather than beating his chest ala Thompson, he instead decided he would show the Tories the wounds on his back.  Look how I've already been flagellating myself, he said, thinking that making clear how another 1,000 jobs will have to go thanks to the loophole allowing those who only use the iPlayer to watch catch-up TV don't have to pay the licence fee, a shortfall estimated to be costing £150m, would go some way to sate the Tory lust for blood.  Schoolboy error.

In some ways, to be sure, the deal Hall has struck doesn't look too bad for the BBC.  It obviously secures the licence fee itself, although no one was seriously imagining the Tories would destroy the BBC in one fall swoop.  The fee will also rise in line with inflation from 2017, although if inflation remains around zero as it is currently then it won't count for much.  Hall's biggest coup, the one he's going to be boasting about, is reaching an agreement to close the above loophole, although how this will be done in practice remains to be seen.  Hall has decided to describe this as "modernising" the licence fee, which seems an odd way of telling people to cough up, like it or not, but he obviously knows what he's doing.

Otherwise he wouldn't have apparently, if we're to believe the reporting so far, suggested to the government that the BBC pick up the tab for free licence fees for the over-75s.  This at present costs a mindboggling £650m.  The licence fee brings in £3.72bn.  Moving BBC Three online only, as approved by the BBC Trust, is meant to save just £30m.  Yes, there are a few other sweeteners in the deal, such as how the licence fee will no longer be "top-sliced" to pay for the roll-out of super fast broadband, that the cost will be phased in so the BBC doesn't lose £650m in one go, and how the corporation will effectively take control of the policy once its pays for it fully, leaving open the possibility Auntie will swiftly say that in fact the over-75s get a pretty good deal all told and either abolish the subsidy entirely, means test it or say only cover half, but you don't have to be Martin Lewis to think the sums aren't going to add up.  Not least when the way is still open for the decriminalising of non-payment, leaving it as only a civil offence, estimated at potentially costing the BBC a further £200m.

Let's start with the assumption that the deal leaves the BBC down by "only" £100m.  Radio 4, according to the BBC, costs £91m a year (the Graun says £121m), while the BBC's online services writ large cost £174m.  Whichever way the BBC tries to save that £100m, services are going to have to close.  BBC Three might be shut down entirely, BBC Four could join BBC Three online only, some if not most of the BBC's local radio stations would go, and the digital radio offerings like 6 Music would almost certainly have to be looked at again.  That's just on the assumption it costs £100m, when it could easily be far higher, especially if once fully phased in the BBC doesn't feel able to dump or cut the subsidy, a move the likes of George Osborne know full well will be opposed with the utmost vehemence by the rest of the media.

According to Steve Hewlett, usually well informed, having to take on the cost of licence fees for the over-75s would have "heralded a catastrophe".  Tony Hall presumably believes the concessions he wrangled from both Osborne and new culture secretary John Whittingdale have avoided such a scenario.  Again, let's take his word for it and accept in the circumstances he couldn't have done much better.  That doesn't alter the fact this is the second time the BBC has been forced into cutting a deal without so much as the slightest input from the people whom actually pay for the damn thing.  We apparently have no say whatsoever, unless the Tory majority is taken as being an affirmation for their manifesto promises of keeping the over-75s subsidy and err, a continuing freeze in the licence fee.

It's difficult, if not impossible to separate this fait accompli from the behaviour of both the Tories and the majority of the press at large both during and since the election.  David Cameron was almost certainly joking when he said about closing the BBC down, but the claims of bias made against the corporation during the campaign, utterly laughable considering how day after day the bulletins ran with the SNP-Labour pact scaremongering, were deadly serious.  The Murdoch press, no longer cowed as memory of phone hacking fades and attention turns to the Mirror, has been making its voice heard again.  Osborne's ridiculous comments yesterday that the BBC was somehow crowding out not just local, but national newspapers, Mail Online being such a woeful failure, just underlined how the motive seems to be to cut the BBC down to size for daring to hold government, regardless of stripe, to account.  The Tories' real ire is directed at pieces on the BBC News website like Mark Mardell's from last week, pointing out Cameron has no clothes when it comes to his "full spectrum response" to the attack in Tunisia and instead chose to focus on the inanity of what the BBC calls Islamic State for a reason.  Such articles carry far more weight when the BBC so rarely dabbles in outright analysis, even if Mardell was clearly remaining objective.  The leak to the Sunday Times framed the passing over of the over-75s subsidy as almost a direct response to the BBC daring to cover the reality of cuts to welfare, cuts which are about to fall far wider than previously.

We can't of course know what went on in the back and forth between Hall and the government.  It was probably made clear in the most certain of terms that if he refused the deal on the table or dared to suggest consulting on it that it would not be on offer in the future.  Again, it could turn out that the deal is better than it seems.  It could force the BBC to finally sort out its problems of management, which have not improved in the slightest even as journalists and others with years of service have been let go.  It might lead to some hard choices that should have been taken years ago: there is no reason why Radio 1, 1 Xtra, even Radio 2 couldn't be privatised, as they without a doubt have long stifled commercial alternatives, almost all of which are laughably terrible.  

From the other side though, this really does look like the beginning of the end of the BBC, forced into cutting services which are popular and in turn undermining the esteem in which the corporation continues to be held, leaving the licence fee ever more precarious as the media landscape continues evolving at speed.  The beneficiaries will just happen to be those whom already have far too much power, whether they be the government of the day or the corporate media that overwhelmingly backed said government.  The losers?  Everyone else.

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