Colin Brazier: The BBC needs to learn to survive by winning and keeping customers, not by extending a statutory hand every year into our wallets
I sincerely hope new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries finds a way to reform the licence fee
For being a BBC presenter Jeremy Vine earns at least twice what Boris Johnson gets as Prime Minister. Being of an envious disposition, this rather sticks in my craw. Not because I don’t think Mr Vine isn’t a perfectly capable broadcaster – he’s obviously much-liked – but because he’s symptomatic of a bigger problem.
The problem starts with a number - £159. That’s the annual fee the BBC demands from me and you, the license-fee payers. And it does so with menaces. Refuse to pay and you’re potentially in quite a lot of bother with the law.
But the problem is more than a number. It’s an attitude. Earlier this year, I criticised Jeremy Vine on Twitter. He’d wondered whether Prince Philip’s funeral was sufficiently diverse, which – given that it was a ceremony involving a white family – seemed a bit daft. Well, Jeremy launched a verbal haymaker back at me, which is far from rare on Twitter. I pointed out that live TV, where he’d made his diversity remark is a high-wire act, and it behoves fellow broadcasters to be sympathetic when misjudgements are made. But I also pointed out that, as a publicly-funded commentator, he might think twice before slagging me off in public.
If you don’t like what I say tonight, you can turn me off. You can switch Jeremy Vine off too, but you’ll still have to pay the license fee. This is morally unsustainable.
Let's consider one more, very personal, example of the attitude which says, we’ll take your money whether you like it or not, and then do what the hell we want regardless. It dates back 20 years. And it rankles still. A friend and former colleague lost his job after the BBC, in tandem with the Guardian, ran a story questioning his journalism. In my opinion, it was a partly a hit-job. An act of corporate guerrilla warfare, designed to damage a rival organisation. The charges against my friend were trifling, but after a few months struggling to find work, he took his own life. I have no doubt that the BBC’s reportage contributed to my colleague’s death, though I’m sure they’d dispute that.
This sort of thing happens, and when someone kills themselves, it is ultimately their choice. But ever since I’ve been super-sensitive to anything that smacks of BBC over-reach.
And you don’t have to look far. In my opinion, and it’s one reason I left a well-paid and secure job to come to GB News, BBC news isn’t impartial, not while it’s telling us that Churchill was a genocidal racist. It employs a great many brilliant journalists, but it’s founded on a myth. That impartial news can be derived from a consensus drawn from a small group of like-minded people. It ignores an eternal verity. That we arrive at the truth adversarially, as we do in the courts, parliament and, yes, in newspapers.
But it’s not just BBC news. A narrow mindset runs through the whole of the corporation’s output. Many of us will have had a moment, mine was sitting down to watch Dr Who with the children last year, when the penny drops. We suddenly realise that what was once TV light entertainment, or sports commentary on the radio, has become a sociology lecture. Again, nothing wrong with that, just don’t expect me to pay for it with threats to go to law if I don’t.
I say all this because this week the BBC ignored those who thought it would be a mistake to appoint Jess Brammar, whose partner is the Guardian journalist Jim Waterson, to a top-job running two BBC news channels. She’d previously made disparaging remarks about Brexit and her critics felt she was the wrong choice at a time when the corporation is facing questions about its impartiality.
Some shrewd operators at the BBC decided it would be a good idea to announce her appointment on Wednesday, when the eyes of Westminster were on the Cabinet reshuffle. Well, to those at the BBC who think nobody noticed, you’re wrong. And tonight you’re probably right to be nervous. The reshuffle saw Nadine Dorries made Media Secretary. She’s previously called the BBC “left-wing”, “hypocritical” and “patronising”.
I sincerely hope she acts on her judgement and finds a way to reform the licence fee so that from Jeremy Vine to Doctor Who, the BBC learns to survive by winning and keeping customers, not by extending a statutory hand every year into our wallets.