BBC bashing by Boris Johnson’s closest aides and supporters has already been knocked on the head by the deepening coronavirus crisis and the government’s desperate need to maximise every possible means of communicating with the public.
Ministers are coming face to face with the stark reality that the nationwide network of television and radio coverage provided by the BBC is a unique resource that any responsible administration should be duty bound to preserve and maintain.
Well over half the 28 million television audience for the Prime Minister’s Downing Street address announcing the lockdown was tuned to BBC 1 and the channel’s Six O’clock New has been attracting as many as 9 million viewers, twice the average viewing figure.
Equally irreplaceable during the current lockdown is the reach and level of trust among viewers and listeners for the output of regional television newsrooms, and especially the BBC’s 39 local radio stations.
I know from personal experience that even the most diehard anti-BBC Conservative politicians can be won over during a national crisis and will think twice before supporting any push to break up the corporation.
My hope and expectation is that one positive outcome from the current pandemic is that the forthcoming negotiations on charter renewal will deliver a more secure future for the BBC.
I joined BBC Radio Leicester as a news producer in January 1972 and within days I was contributing to what public service local radio stations do best during a state of emergency: supplying listeners with accurate up-to-date information tailored to their locality.
The start of my broadcasting career had coincided not only with a seven-week miners’ strike and rota power cuts, but also the imminent launch of independent local radio, an initiative by the then Conservative government aimed at subjecting the BBC’s local stations to the much-needed competitive force of commercial rivals.
Our objective at Radio Leicester, as the very first of the BBC’s local stations, was to fulfil the undertakings given at our launch in 1967.
Our broadcasts had to be informative, fast, reliable and truly local, not forgetting that as a city rather a county station our transmission area was restricted to the city itself and the towns and villages in the immediate vicinity.
Once the miners’ strike had reduced output at the electricity generating stations and the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath had been forced to introduce a state of emergency, we did all we could to tailor our news output to help listeners come to terms with the enforced rota of nine-hour power cuts.
Early each morning I read out the name of every single school that would have to close that day due to the restrictions, an invaluable service to families already struggling with the loss of power and the kind of detail that we knew would be so valued by our listeners.
At a pep talk some weeks later I remember being impressed by the stance of the then director-general Charles Curran when he congratulated the local stations for having served licence payers so well when there was so much disruption to daily life.
I was struck by the way Curran had defended the principle of the BBC being funded by a fee that had to be paid by every household with a radio receiver or television set; he seemed not only aware but proud of his responsibility to the licence payer.
The strength of Curran’s commitment to public service broadcasting had made a lasting impression and soon after becoming a political correspondent I was regularly reminded of his clarity about the BBC’s contribution whenever I interviewed Conservative MPs.
Never once did I hear criticism from the Tory benches about the role or value of the BBC local radio stations that were broadcasting in their constituencies.
Even those MPs who never missed a chance to harry the BBC, realised that their local station was a platform that had an appeal across the age ranges and was a trusted friend especially among hard to reach groups such as the elderly, disabled, least well off and vulnerable sections of the community.
In the first week the coronavirus lockdown and the start of the BBC local radio’s Make A Difference campaign – aimed at maintaining contact with listeners during the pandemic – stations were receiving more than 8,000 calls a day.
Such has been the response that with the help of radios donated by Argos, Currys PC World, John Lewis & Partners, Pure and Roberts Radio, the BBC is offering free DAB radios to the most at-risk elderly who are self-isolating and would like access to news and entertainment.
Let’s hope history repeats itself in the months to come and that Tony Hall’s successor as BBC director-general speaks with the same conviction in defending the licence fee as Charles Curran did in the 1970s.
BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg invariably gets called first at live televised news conferences from Downing Street. Boris Johnson’s BBC-bashing communications chief Dominic Cummings is having to face reality. In a national emergency any responsible government has to communicate with the public and that means acknowledging the extent of the BBC’s audience reach. (Image Daily Telegraph 25.3.2020)