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.

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.

For “war-cabinet” read “My team isn’t good enough”

UK Conservative leader David Cameron has a problem. If he really believes that he is going to lead the country later this year (though the polls are pointing towards a hung-parliament), then his team is simply not strong enough. True, he’s got former chancellor Ken Clarke — good old Ken — but, aside from that, he has no-one with economic clout and muscle. And his party is determined that it will not follow Clarkeonomics, whatever happens.

His speech this weekend is full of promises on what he would to the economy. And I do mean ‘to’. The problem is, neither David Cameron nor treasury spokesman George Osborne have ever managed the finances of a large company, let alone a country. Their careers have largely been as political advisors and opposition MPs. They are skilled in saying things that sound right. They don’t have experience doing them.

If the General Election were a job interview, then David Cameron would be the candidate who has all the right words on the application form but, when questioned, can give no examples of how he has done them, and little specific about how he would do them, if given the chance.

This is the real reason why David Cameron has now suggested a ‘war-cabinet’. He’s thinking specifically of the war in Afghanistan, but he’s already made overtures to the Lib-Dems about us ‘not being so different’ in other areas. Clearly, Cameron’s hope is not very distant from Brown’s abortive ‘government of all the talents’.

Cameron doesn’t have the people who can rescue Britain’s economy, and he’s hoping that other parties will provide them. Naturally, of course, what he really wants is Vince Cable, the Lib-Dem treasury spokesman who foresaw the economic crisis, warned against it, and is the most trusted man in British politics. Gordon Brown wanted the same thing, and also didn’t get it.

It’s all very well for Cameron to talk about swingeing cuts to the public sector, higher taxes and (essentially) a national austerity programme. But this is not how companies are successfully turned around. My experience of turn-arounds, as a senior manager in some quite different organisations, is that it’s all about the senior team sitting down more or less every day tugging, tacking, adjusting, checking and re-checking the analysis, probing potential avenues, following up good decisions with careful planning even more carefully executed. Above all, it’s about a positive skepticism when things appear to be going in the right direction. Foolish optimism has been the death of far too many corporate recoveries.

It’s true that, in turn-arounds, companies do sometimes make redundancies, cut costs, increase their income stream by raising prices, issuing shares, or selling off capital. But companies that entirely fail to turn around and fizzle into administration also do all of these things. Especially when powerful forces are defending their own budgets, it’s often easier to cut the bits of the organisation that actually make it work, than to identify inefficiencies and deal with those. In fact, any company-wide solution, such as the ones Cameron describes, is apt to failure in a time of crisis. When times are good, companies can engage in grandiose strategy-rhetoric, and get away with it. When things are tight, the margin for error is slight, and the big picture stuff, without the little picture execution, hastens demise.

Cameron is increasingly revealing that he knows he does not have the team to make it work. Good. Voters should look elsewhere. Everyone know who the next Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to be. The current political system does not favour that solution. But it is five or more months to the election. And even a week in politics is a long time.

Give parliament a clean start

Just 265 MPs have stated definitely that they will stand again, and parliamentary officials are predicting a quarter of MPs will eventually stand down before the General Election, according to the Daily Telegraph. Although this is set to be the biggest exodus in living memory, voters may legitimately be asking the question: “why aren’t more going?” We know that politics in Britain is broken. A large number of MPs who assisted in breaking it, by first voting against the disclosure of their expenses, and then through their unrepentant response when found out, are still staying. Should we really rehire the people who broke it to fix it?

Staying on too long in parliament is like staying too long as the captain of a sports team, when you no longer have the fitness and reactions to be there. I feel this somewhat keenly at the moment, since, as of 1 January, I have stepped down from captaining the West Midlands fencing team. At the age of 43, I am more than twice as old as half of the team, and it was time to move on. The upper age for politics is rather older, but even MPs need to recognise when it’s time to go. This time, though, it’s not retirement and pension which is the issue — it’s the simple fact that MPs have lost our confidence. For some this is an unfair ‘guilty by association’, but others lost our trust because they abused it. For the good of the team, they need to be off.

It appears, though, that not everyone has got the message. In fact, we have politicians who fought tooth and nail against Heather Brooke’s campaign for full disclosure of expenses, voted against it in parliament, and then tried to resurrect their careers and put one over on their opponents by representing themselves as the peoples’ champions when the Telegraph got hold of the story.

We are expecting a number of announcements over the next weeks. Some MPs can honourably step down, having worked hard for many years for the good of their constituents. They deserve our respect. Some MPs who are expenses-damaged but still holding on should go. That way, they can win back some of our respect, and ensure that the next parliament is given the best possible start with a clean slate.

It will be a long, hard job to win back the confidence of the public. But it is a job which must be done, no matter how hard, nor how long.

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