Who will pay for Xanadu?
Greg Dyke, brutally terminated as BBC director-general after foolishly imagining that the BBC was independent enough to call out Tony Blair on his delusional Iraq dossier, nevertheless left two great legacies.
Dyke, who was against the BBC licence fee before he was for it, although it seems he may now be against it again, is the man who saw to it that the so-called* freeview specification used for digital terrestrial services in the UK would not be compatible with subscription television. This, he later boasted, was to make it harder to abolish the licence fee, because with millions of incapable boxes in the field it would be “impossible” to convert viewers to subscriptions.
This was a deft move in defence of the licence fee, but a disaster for viewers and public broadcasting. Viewers are entitled to public broadcasting directly accountable to the public. The BBC is not a public broadcaster – it is a state broadcaster, answerable to ministers. The licence fee is the worst solution to guaranteeing the independence of the BBC. A subscription would be the best. A public broadcaster, not for profit, that could draw a mandate from thousands or millions of subscribers, each free to cancel at will – now that would be accountable public broadcasting.
So Dyke by his own boast admits that he sneakily, without any public debate, least of all one including his blessed fee payers, abused a technical standard for a purely political motive. His intention was nakedly to sabotage any possibility that the BBC could break free of the licence fee and establish a respectable relationship with the viewers. The beautiful irony is that the slippery Dyke was hoist by his own petard. Having ensured that the BBC would be 100% dependent on government more or less forever, the government promptly sacked him!
Now Dyke is boasting of a second pillar to his BBC legacy. This is equally dubious and sneaky. Dyke claims that he secured a secret deal from Tessa Jowel, then the culture minister, and one of the most venal and stupid government ministers in a crowded field, to financially guarantee the BBC’s massive, and shady property developments on Portland Place and elsewhere. This tookthe form of an understanding the government would retain the licence fee for 30 more years, to pay off the BBC’s mortgages!
Not that licence fee payers should presume themselves to inquire too deeply into the extraordinary machinations of the BBC property empire. It is at Portland Place, on the banks of the holy West End, that the BBC is building a corporate headquarters that would make Kubla Kahn blush. Those staff not exiled to Manchester will here enjoy a stately pleasure dome, just minutes from the best restaurants in town. The building will also be the new headquarters of BBC News, which naturally will have the biggest and most costly newsroom in the world. All this is costing well more than £1 billion although the numbers released by the BBC are less and admit to being a mere £20 million over budget. I doubt very much BBC candor on this point. Anyway, according to Dyke, we are all on the hook for this. Or at least, those who continue to pay the fee are on the hook.
How much worse this gets is open to dispute. The extent of the cost-overuns for the Manchester development and the move of thousands of staff there is equally opaque, as to be expected from the BBC. How these deals are being financed, what covenents are in place, and what the current credit conditions might mean for these deals, or the BBC generally, or the government as the supposed guarantor, we do not know. These are the BBC’s darkest secrets.
Getting to the bottom of this financial tale ought to be a job ab initio for the media correspondents of the national media. As Andrew Neil noticed some time ago, these are “the dross of Fleet Street.” They do not present an inspiring example to the profession of journalism. One of the stoutest hack defenders of the BBC even got an MBE (and got a TV show, on the BBC). One can understand why these journalists are mostly useless: they are entirely dependent for their stories on the BBC press office.
Don’t expect anything from the the BBC Trust. This successor to the governors supposedly represents the licence payers but actually answers to the government which appoints all of its members.
And least of all do not expect much from the House of Commons select committee on media, chaired by the affable but so-far useless John Wittingdale.
C. Northcote Parkinson remarked that when organisations move themselves into lavish headquarters, they are already in decline. The BBC reaffirms this astute observation. But will the BBC implode? The government, pace Dyke, apparently has promised that it won’t. But the viewers could still do the job if they showed enough spine and cancelled their direct debits. Yet another poll this week shows two-thirds of us are against the fee. Consent for the television tax is lost. No surprise the politicians and the BBC find it convenient to ignore this.
* Freeview it goes without saying is not free – you are still required to buy a TV licence “or get done” by the BBC’s private police.