Ever since Rupert Murdoch decided to enter the television game in the early 1980s, his newspapers have waged continuous war on public service broadcasters, and on the BBC in particular. These he sees purely as rivals in the broadcasting marketplace, and when Murdoch spots rivals his instinct is to exterminate them – witness, for example, the predatory pricing by Murdoch of his newspaper titles by means of which he attempted to throttle the Independent in the early 1990s.
As the man himself once said: “A monopoly is a terrible thing – until you get one.”
One of the first shots in Murdoch’s campaign against the BBC was a series of leaders in The Times in January 1985, the first of which argued: “The BBC should not survive this parliament in its present size, in its present form and with its present terms of reference intact.” And this is exactly the same tune which Murdoch’s papers have been playing ever since. Thus The Times of July 17 2015 greeted the DCMS Green Paper on BBC Charter renewal with a leader headed “Slimming Auntie”, which argued: “For its own sake and the country’s, the BBC should emerge slimmer, more efficient and more accountable to those who pay its bills”.
The editorial went on to demand:
[The BBC] must rein in what George Osborne has called its ‘imperial’ online ambitions. The corporation is a broadcaster, not a publisher. It cannot expect a renewed charter to endorse a status quo that lets it trample on private sector rivals with public funds. Technology has allowed the BBC to expand as if on steroids.
Whose imperial ambitions?
The reference to Osborne concerns his appearance on the Andrew Marr Show on July 5 when he asked:
What is The Times, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail or the Sun or the Daily Mirror going to look like in ten years’ time? It is going to be an online paper probably. If you’ve got a website that’s got features and cooking recipes – effectively the BBC website becomes the national newspaper as well as the national broadcaster. There are those sorts of issues we need to look at very carefully. You wouldn’t want the BBC to completely crowd out national newspapers. If you look at the BBC website it is a good product but it is becoming a bit more imperial in its ambitions.
This in fact closely echoes what James Murdoch had said in his 2009 MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, in which he accused the BBC of a “land-grab” and complained:
Rather than concentrating on areas where the market is not delivering, the BBC seeks to compete head-on for audiences with commercial providers to try and shore up support – or more accurately dampen opposition – to a compulsory licence fee … Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it. We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate.
Osborne’s Marr interview was meat and drink to the Murdoch press: “Osborne: BBC Must Curb Online Ambitions” ran the headline in the next day’s Times – and a leader entitled: “Imperial Overreach: The Chancellor Is Right. The BBC’s Online Presence Needs To Be Reined In” argued:
An obvious way for the corporation to cut costs is to scale back its presence in areas well-served by its competitors, and online news is one … The charter is up for renewal in December 2016. The BBC must find steep cost savings by then. Its bloated and overweening online operation is the place to start.
An identical line was taken by the same day’s Sun, whose news article was headed “Osbo to End BBC ‘Empire’,” and whose leader claimed:
When George Osborne talks about its “imperial” ambition, he’s spot on. Whether it’s the BBC’s local news sites putting local newspapers out of business, or its main website behaving as if it should be a monopoly provider of news, the BBC uses the cushion of the licence fee to protect itself from competition that exists in the real world – and to distort the market for everyone else. It’s time there was a level playing field – and the BBC was brought back to reality.
Newspapers puffing government ministers for pursuing policies which suit their own proprietor’s interests (as opposed to the public interest) is hardly an edifying sight – and suspicions of an unhealthily close relationship in this matter between the Murdoch press and the government were only strengthened by the fact that, on the same day that Osborne appeared on Marr’s programme, The Sunday Times revealed, presumably as the result of a well-placed leak, that Osborne had forced the BBC to take on the cost of free TV licences for the over 75s.
The following week, the same paper was the first to break the news of the forthcoming DCMS Green Paper. Under the headline “Tories Give BBC Reform Ultimatum”, it announced: “The BBC will be told to return to its public service roots and do away with highly commercial programmes such as The Voice as part of the widest ranging shake-up of the corporation for a generation.”
No wonder, then, that the Tory peer Lord Fowler noted in the Lords on July 14:
Frankly, briefings and leaks have been the characteristic so far of what is billed as an open and transparent process. If you want to know what is going on in the discussion on the future of the BBC, do not ask the BBC Trust, read the Sunday Times.
Now we discover, courtesy of the Independent on July 30, that Osborne and Murdoch are alleged to have met in late June, shortly before Osborne met with the BBC’s director-general, Tony Hall, to thrash out the free licenses deal.
Of course, we don’t know what they actually discussed, but given the long and dishonourable history of backstage deals between Murdoch and successive governments, we surely have every reason to be suspicious.
Such deals are alleged to have included Murdoch’s acquisition of The Times and The Sunday Times, the insertion of Murdoch-friendly clauses into the Communications Act 2003 as a result of intense lobbying by his executives and the government’s approval of Murdoch’s bid for full control of BSkyB, during which process he visited No 10 twice (on the second occasion entering through the back door).
More generally, as Peter Jukes notes in The Fall of the House of Murdoch, James Murdoch met with Cameron at least 14 times between January 2006 and January 2010. And, between the election of the coalition in May 2010 and the eruption of the phone-hacking scandal in July 2011 there were more than 60 meetings between ministers and one of the Murdochs, Rebekah Brooks or Times editor James Harding. Indeed, Jukes quotes a former senior News International journalist as telling him that by the time of the 2010 general election “the Court of Murdoch and the Court of Cameron were almost totally enmeshed”.
Did Leveson actually happen?
Lord Justice Leveson stated in his report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press that “the evidence clearly demonstrates that the political parties of UK national government and of UK official opposition have had or developed too close a relationship with the press”, and that their dealings with each other have given rise to “legitimate perceptions and concerns that politicians and the press have traded power and influence in ways which are contrary to the public interest and out of public sight”.
However, judging by the way in which BBC charter renewal has been dealt with thus far by the Murdoch papers (as well as by the BBC’s other enemies in the press) – and considering the way in which the UK government has managed the public presentation of matters pertaining to the BBC in general – the Leveson Inquiry might as well never have happened. How on earth can the public be expected to take part in sensible and well-informed debate on BBC Charter renewal in an atmosphere so poisoned by economic self-interest, ideological warfare and political calculation?
Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media at Brunel University London
This article originally appeared on the Conversation website and is reproduced with permission and thanks