Don’t break up the BBC

The Tory-backed Policy Exchange think-tank has today called for the BBC to be dismantled, with BBC Worldwide privatised, the BBC Trust scrapped, and sport and popular entertainment dumped to create opportunities for commercial channels, according to a preview to the report “Changing the Channel” covered by the BBC website and the Guardian.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what the Policy Exchange is saying because, although they have given away copies to the BBC and to the Guardian, they have yet to publish their own report on their own website.

But, based on what we know now, this is the old right-wing (Policy Exchange actually calls itself ‘centre-right’, but you don’t need to read very far before you realise that ‘centre’ is a euphemism) animosity to the BBC. While the Labour party has long decried the ‘Tory Press’, Conservatives get equally frustrated with the ‘liberal BBC’. Of course, at the moment they are able to build on popular opposition to large salaries, such as the one Jonathan Ross is giving up, but the truth is, they want to take away from the BBC many of the things we most love about it.

Following the Policy Exchange’s prescription, we would lose sport and popular entertainment. So, no more Eastenders, no more Doctor Who, no more football, athletics, Wimbledon, the Olympics, and definitely no return for the cricket. Based on current schedules, the new look BBC might be something like this on a Saturday evening:

7pm – nothing – replaces ‘So you think you can dance’
7.45 – National Lottery draw, probably extended edition
9pm – nothing – replaces “Casualty”
10pm – nothing – replaces “Live at the Apollo”
10.45pm – News – extended edition
11.00 pm – nothing – replaces football

Of course, they wouldn’t really leave all those nothings in. But what would they fill them up with? Not re-runs of old classics, as that would be popular entertainment. Certainly not cutting edge wildlife shows — they cost as much as popular entertainment to make. Ditto Horizon, Panorama, Shakespeare productions, Grand Opera, Jane Austen. Policy Exchange’s prescription would be about taking the money away from the BBC which currently goes on those shows.

There is, of course, a channel which already does what the BBC would be like if Policy Exchange had its way: it’s BBC News 24. The same news, over and over again, all day and night long. It doesn’t cost much to make. But, equally, it doesn’t have many people watching it for long.

If you take away the things that people like on the BBC, you will not assuage their opposition (if there is any) to the license fee. You will increase it. They will be paying the same amount of money (Policy Exchange wants to beef up Channel 4), but getting nothing they like.

How long before the BBC is abolished?

On that basis, not long at all.

But have a care. Policy Exchange is publishing a new report every three or four days. They are setting out the programme for a Tory government — the things that David Cameron dare not put in his manifesto. Britain after Cameron might well be a place with marginally less debt, if he can somehow get his sums right. But it will be a joyless, grey place, where only sure-fire hits are played on commercial TV (in other words, US shows six months after they were shown on Sky), and where home-grown television has as much interest and creative flair as a 1970s Czechoslovakian cartoon.

Labour coup-plot does not help anyone

Less than six months from the latest possible date for a general election, ex-ministers Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have called for a leadership contest in the Labour party. Hewitt, who is stepping down as an MP, said “This is not an attempted coup”, which tidily gets the word ‘coup’ into popular discussion without making it her words.

What are we to make of this?

The first duty of government — and of opposition — is to serve the nation. Whether or not we like Gordon Brown, the Labour Party already had one chance to vote him in, or someone else. In the event, no-one else came forward, and Brown won by default. But it was a leadership contest, and they got the leader they collectively chose. With the economy in a parlous state, parliament’s own reputation in substantial trouble, and a leadership contest of a much more serious nature at the General Election looming, the nation is in no way served by panic in its ruling party.

If Gordon Brown had been caught with his fingers in the till, or was putting forward some dramatic U-turn which required a new mandate from his party, then a leadership contest might have been the right thing to do. But a contest to (allegedly) settle doubt and get things “sorted out once and for all”, will do no such thing. John Major tried to bolster his flagging leadership two years before an election, and it did nothing to establish his credibility. In fact, it only made him look weaker.

I’m sure that the majority of Labour MPs will have the sense to ignore it — if only out of self-interest. More chaos in Downing Street will simply rob them of votes they could still have counted on.

We need to leave this storm in a tea-cup behind, and get back to the proper business of politics. The pre-election debate has started. It is too late to change the debaters.

The phoney war begins

Everyone knows that the General Election is this year. So, like clockwork, on the year’s first working day, the spin machines of both Labour and the Conservatives trundle into action, and then into overdrive and counter-spin, back-spin, side-spin and top-spin.

How long before they go into tail-spin?

You can now watch both in glorious web-colour in this BBC article.

The big problem with both Alastair Darling — stuttering and slipping his way through his speech like a reveller who has walked out onto the ice — and David Cameron — sauntering up to the microphone, leaning on the podium, like a Blairette imitating his idol — is that both were strong on attacking the credibility of the other, but bring no credibility of their own. Darling, of course, has not been a disastrous Chancellor, just an unlucky one. The world economic crisis would have happened whatever he did. It was just his bad luck that it happened on his watch. However, like Napoleon’s generals, we, the public, prefer lucky chancellors. David Cameron is not a bad man. He’s had some personal tragedy to contend with, and it probably really has changed him as a person. But he has no credentials for running the economy, and neither has his sidekick George Osborne.

It is much easier to shred the credibility of your opponent than to put up something credible. But credibility, or, more importantly, trustworthiness, is what politicians have in shortest supply at this time. We do not really care whether George Osborne’s budget is full of holes, or whether David Cameron really saw eleven mistakes in eleven seconds (seems a bit unlikely, though) in Alastair Darling’s analysis. What we really care about is whether or not we can really trust either of them.

On today’s showing, we cannot. Vince Cable, now the most trusted man in British politics, and probably the one politician people really trust with the economy, wisely stayed silent today. He does not need to enter the phoney war yet. After a decade of telling us that Punch and Judy politics is over, Darling and Cameron clashed in exactly that fashion. There will be other, more serious battles, but keeping out of that particular clash of sausage and hammer says a lot more about Vince Cable than either Darling or Cameron were able to say about themselves.

Government should help church out of unholy hole

A couple in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, have been forced to sell their farm to pay off a quarter of a million in legal bills and a £230,000 repair bill for a property not even theirs. Link to story. Anyone who has bought a house recently will have received a cryptic warning from their lawyers that they might be liable for church repairs — but that there is no register of all the liabilities, and so no way of knowing whether you are or not. What’s more, the previous owners may well not know either, since they will only have found out if they have been landed with a similar bill at some point.

Richard Dawkins’s followers will no doubt be quick to claim this is another example of the heinous effect of ‘the God delusion’. But they would be wrong. Under charity law, the Church of England has to diligently pursue all of its debtors, and, coupled with the laws on ‘chancel repair liability’ which date back to Valor Ecclesiasticus in 1535, they have no choice.

At the same time, there can’t be anyone in the entire world who believes it’s right for Andrew and Gail Wallbank to be forced to sell their house to pay for repairs to a public building. And they are not the only ones. There is a long list of people who have been stung this way over the years, and the list is going to get longer by 2013.

For more information, see Chancel.Org.UK, which explains how a change in the law will mean that the Church of England has until 2013 to register its interest in properties with Chancel liability. To see the campaign site of the Wallbanks, look here. The official line is available here.

What lunatic changed the law in that way?

(You know the answer to this one, but, in case you don’t, the legislation is the Land Registration Act 2002.)

Since the Church of England is powerless to extricate itself from a situation which bankrupts ordinary people and brings the church, and thus the entire Christian faith, into disrepute, the government ought to have intervened to simply cancel chancel liability. This would free the Church of England to pursue grants and even Lottery money. This is in fact what the Law Commission and the Church of England Synod recommended in the 1980s.

Parliament long ago abolished tithing laws. Blasphemy laws have largely been set aside. But the Chancel Repair Act itself was updated as recently as 1932.

In 2008, the Prime Minister responded to a petition against it as follows:
“Chancel Repair Liability has existed for several centuries and the Government has no plans to abolish it or to introduce a scheme for its redemption. The Government has, however, acted to make the existence of the liability much simpler to discover. From October 2013, chancel repair liability will only bind buyers of registered land if it is referred to on the land register. By that time, virtually all freehold land in England and Wales will be registered. The Government believes that this approach strikes a fair balance between the landowners subject to the liability and its owners who are, in England, generally Parochial Church Councils and, in Wales, the Representative Body of the Church in Wales.
“The Government acknowledges that the existence of a liability for chancel repair will, like any other legal obligation, affect the value of the property in question, but in many cases this effect can be mitigated by relatively inexpensive insurance. It is for the parties involved in a transaction to decide whether or not to take out insurance.”

As far as the Wallbanks are concerned, whatever action is taken is now almost certainly too late.

Parliamentary Questions should have been asked. But it seems that they were not.

We are therefore left with the entirely unsatisfactory statement made by Mr David Lammy, Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, in 2002: “The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): On 14 September 2003 a Transitional Provisions Order relating to the status of chancel repair liability was made under the Land Registration Act 2002. The making of the order follows the reversal by the House of Lords in June 2003 of the Court of Appeal’s decision in Wallbank v Parochial Church Council of the Parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley, Warwickshire. The order provides that, for a period of 10 years from the coming into force of the Act on 13 October 2003, chancel repair liability will remain an interest that binds successive owners of land even though it is not protected by an entry in a register kept by the Land Registry. As no land registration fee is payable for applications to protect similar ancient property rights, such as payments in lieu of tithe, Crown rents and manorial rights, the Land Registry intends to waive the fee for applications to protect chancel repair liability for the 10 year period.

This is pure madness. The government ought to have abolished chancel repair liability outright and filled the short-fall from the public purse — remember, that, at the time, the public purse was overflowing, long before we bailed out the banks and put the nation into debt.

The government can still act. In its dying days, it can set aside a historic injustice: rather like the rhetoric Gordon Brown used in his speech today to drum up a faint pulse among the faithful. While it is certain that Labour can move no major new legislation between now and its forthcoming electoral defeat, it should be able to sort out this mess. Nobody will oppose it, nobody will try to talk it out in committee.

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