Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director general, spent two and a half hours in front of the Leveson Inquiry on media ethics but to my great disappointment he did not offer an opinion on the government’s six-year freeze of the licence fee, by far the greatest restraint on the quality and quantity of BBC journalism.
There could hardly have been a clearer example of the chilling effect of government interference and the threat to the plurality of the British news media – two of the key issues which Lord Justice Leveson has been asked to investigate.
When invited to comment on his relationship with politicians, Thompson insisted that he always tried to keep them at arm’s length. But throughout his oral evidence (23.1.2012) he did not address the impact of the hurried and largely secret negotiations which he had to conduct on the BBC’s behalf in October 2010 when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government froze the licence fee for six years and effectively reduced the BBC’s spending power by 20 per cent.
Instead of exploiting the platform he had been given and dealing head on with the repercussions of the biggest setback to BBC’s independence and vitality for a generation, the director general retreated to the safer ground of his role as the Corporation’s editor in chief.
The only moment he got close to squaring up to the arguments advanced in Opposition by the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt about the need to rein in “the bloated BBC” (see David Cameron's signed article, Sun, 3.11.2008) was when he was asked by Lord Justice Leveson whether the BBC’s reach was weakening the plurality of the press by undermining the viability of local and regional newspapers.
Thompson replied that the BBC’s local and regional news services had not grown in recent years; local radio was started in the 1960s, completed in the 1970s, and the regional services had been going for fifty to sixty years. In addition there were “relatively modest websites” serving the geographical areas of local radio stations.
He believed the deterioration in the viability of local and regional newspapers had “nothing to do” with the BBC. “I don’t think it adds up to a crisis of plurality...people are not substituting buying a newspaper by using a BBC website...I have yet to see any evidence of a substitution effect on the local and regional press.”
Except for a short foray into the difficulties surrounding the aftermath of Lord Hutton’s inquiry into the BBC’s reporting of the Blair government’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the clash over the timing of the Panorama investigation into allegations of corruption over FIFA’s handling of the world cup, Thompson steered clear of the BBC’s often fraught relationship with the government.
He did not comment on the Conservatives’ pre-election pledge to freeze the licence fee and the prompt delivery of that promise within five months of the general election, an undertaking which had been campaigned for by newspapers such as the Sun and the News of the World and which in my opinion became a critical factor in reconnecting Cameron to the political and commercial agenda of the Murdoch press.
By contrast when giving his evidence Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, was far more robust about the need for an arm’s length relationship and, as I saw it, he made it clear by implication that knowing what we know now he would have given the coalition a run for its money if ministers had held a pistol to his head and tried to enforce anything as draconian as a fundamental reshaping of the BBC's finances.
Lord Patten had said previously that he did not believe the BBC could have got a better licence fee settlement than the six-year deal but I would like to think that he would have made a stand given all that has subsequently emerged about the extent of the covert relationship between the Murdoch press and Conservative ministers and the forced abandoning at the very last minute of News Corporation's bid for total control of BSkyB.
Would Lord Patten have gone along with the coalition government's blatant demolition of the licence fee principle and the requirement that in future licence fee money should be used to shoulder the burden of the World Service, rather than the taxpayer at large, and also fund S4C and the local television stations which Jeremy Hunt has proposed?
Lord Patten's digs at Cameron gave a hint of how he might respond if he had to face a similar set of circumstances in the future. He said that since his appointment in May last year he had met the Prime Minister only once but that would probably have been more frequently if he had been "a News International executive." As chairman of the BBC Trust he certainly saw no need to have "sleepovers" -- a back-handed swipe at Rebekah Brooks' visit to Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence.
While “not in favour of grovelling” before politicians, he welcomed the new approach Cameron was taking. “I think it does help that the Prime Minister and the other party leaders have agreed to publish, not necessarily an account, but the number of times they have meetings with the media...I think politicians will take from the events which the Leveson Inquiry is examining, a recognition that getting too close to the media could become a tar baby and could leave them looking bedraggled and dishevelled.”
Lord Patten was also quite pointed in his assessment of the impact of the BBC’s much-reduced income. He said that for the first time the BBC had become “a declining part of the broadcast economy”; never before had the BBC represented such a “small part in financial terms” of Britain’s broadcasting industry.
I was intrigued by the differences in the stance adopted by the Trust chairman and the director general. Lord Patten, in post for less than a year, had no say in his inheritance; he had taken over at a time when the management was implementing extensive reductions in programme output and large-scale job losses in order to meet a £1 billion a year reduction in the corporation’s budget by 2015.
Although again he offered no comment on the extent or necessity for the cutbacks, Lord Patten’s body language suggested that he would not have stood idly by if he had been faced with a sudden, take-it-or-leave-it edict from the government of the day.
For his part, Thompson seemed almost to be still in the process of coming to terms with the scale of the cutbacks which are slashing output and reducing the BBC’s reach.
I could not help feeling that the untold story of precisely what happened in the negotiations of October 2010 would probably have confirmed my worst impressions of the behind-the-scenes negotiating style of the corporatist BBC which took hold during eight years when John Birt was director general.
In getting so close to Tony Blair and the rest of the New Labour elite, Birt seemed to neuter the BBC as a free spirit; he somehow demolished that great tradition of independence, director generals who spoke with real conviction about the incalculable value of the licence fee and the need to maintain it.
Birt cultivated a managerial culture complete with its corporate centre, stuffed with advisers and strategists. Birt and his cohorts preferred to deal directly but privately with the Blair government, adviser to adviser, strategist to strategist.
Mark Thompson was a product of the Birt era and I fear that when faced by the coalition’s post election ambush and demands for a dramatic scaling back in the BBC’s output, that corporate style of negotiating was found wanting.
Perhaps it is wishful thinking on my part but I hope I have not misunderstood the signals which Lord Patten was sending to British politicians via the Leveson Inquiry – that they should respect the BBC’s charter and especially its financial independence.
Illustrations: City AM 20 October 2010; Daily Telegraph 10 January, 2005.