It is hardly surprising that Rupert Murdoch, having surveyed the ramshackle, amateurish beginnings of GB News from his Oxfordshire estate, decided he could do better. His talkTV station, featuring Piers Morgan as a lead presenter, and to be available on regular television platforms including Freeview from early next year, is likely to be a much more professional attempt to give “opinion-led news” a prominent berth in Britain’s media landscape. The dream of a successful rightwing channel to capitalise on cultural fissures opened up by Brexit remains alive.
Against this divisive backdrop, support and adequate funding for public service broadcasting – committed to impartiality and the provision of inclusive programming – is fundamental to a healthy public sphere. But relentlessly, this government proceeds in the opposite direction as it pursues a stealth strategy to chip away at the standing and reputation of the BBC. The latest skirmishes came in the form of the grilling received by Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, at Tuesday’s culture select committee meeting. During the session, along with suggestions that the corporation might be “hiding” payments to its stars via its commercial arm, Mr Davie was obliged to defend the BBC’s impartiality against questioning from Conservative MPs such as Steve Brine, who thought it would be a good idea for Sage scientists criticising the government to be questioned on air over which party they voted for at the last election.
This type of thing has been par for the course during Mr Davie’s first year in the job, during which time a war of attrition has been waged upon the corporation by the government, Tory MPs and critics in the rightwing media. Threats to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee were in the end not carried out, but set down a threatening marker ahead of the decision over charter renewal in 2027. Sir Robbie Gibb, a BBC board member and former communications director to Theresa May, reportedly warned of negative political consequences should a former BBC staffer, Jess Brammar, be appointed as executive editor of news. That rolled the pitch for an aggressive and intrusive rightwing media campaign against Ms Brammar, on the grounds of alleged leftwing bias revealed in historic tweets. The appointment of Nadine Dorries as culture secretary has upped the ante still further, given her previous descriptions of the BBC as a “leftwing,” “strident” and “patronising” servant of elitist metropolitans.
The undermining effects of this persistent hostility will almost certainly be compounded by an imminent five-year licence-fee deal, in which funding is likely to be initially frozen, or to rise at a level below inflation. The corporation has suffered a 30% real terms cut in funding since 2010. In an industry where the spending power of digital giants such as Netflix and Amazon is driving severe inflationary pressures, successive Conservative governments continue to run the BBC down, both reputationally and economically. Aware that it is dealing with an institution that – despite the government’s best efforts – enjoys high levels of public trust, the government hopes that this incremental approach will fatally weaken the BBC, potentially enabling a coup de grace to be delivered in 2027.
In an era of media fragmentation and cultural polarisation, alluded to on Tuesday by Mr Davie, it is vital that trusted public service broadcasting remains a central part of the national conversation. Pace Mr Brine, its crucial role was never more apparent than during the pandemic, when misinformation and anti-vaxx conspiracy theories circulated online. Mr Davie told MPs that a “grown-up” discussion about the future of the BBC in a transforming media landscape was needed. He is right. Sadly, there appears to be little chance of one taking place.