The BBC provides unfettered public service – No wonder George Osborne wants to cut it

It looks as though the BBC is set to be another casualty of George Osborne’s crusade to force all public institutions to ‘make savings’ and ‘find efficiencies’ (or, in plain-speak, have their budgets cut).

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, the Chancellor accused the BBC of becoming ‘imperial in its ambitions’ and warned that, particularly with its online presence, it risked ‘crowding out’ national newspapers. He said that the Beeb should play its part in reducing the national deficit, before announcing in Wednesday’s budget that the broadcasters will shoulder the £600m cost of providing free TV licences for over-75s.

Prior to the election, there was a strong sense (fuelled by ominous hints from David Cameron) that, if the Tories won, the BBC would suffer. A post-election editorial in the Sun even declared ‘it’s payback time’. It is hardly surprising, then, that Osborne – a relentless free marketeer and extoller of the virtues of private over public – should be the one to oversee such a drastic slashing of the BBC’s resources.

it is impossible for the BBC to please both sides

That doesn’t stop his claims seeming a tad hypocritical, though. The media is a notorious hotspot for monopolisation, and it is nonsensical to lambast the BBC whilst failing to address the fact that vast swathes of the world’s media are controlled by a handful of moguls. Surely these are the bigger threat to a free press, and provide better examples of the ‘imperialism’ that Osborne refers to.

Of course, debate always has (and likely always will) surround the neutrality of the BBC. Those on the right regularly say that it is too left-leaning, while those on the left say the opposite. The aforementioned Sun editorial criticised its ‘smug left-wing agenda’, and Nigel Farage memorably blasted the Opposition Debate audience as ‘remarkable, even by the left-wing standards of the BBC’. On the other hand, a Cardiff University study found that Conservative ministers receive significantly more airtime than Labour ministers, while many have noted the strong right-wing influence of political editor Nick Robinson and bullish Daily Politics host Andrew Neil.

Realistically, it is impossible for the BBC to please both sides. As a public institution, however, it at least has a duty of impartiality. It can neither overtly endorse nor overtly condemn any single viewpoint, meaning that it is as un-partisan a news source as we can hope to have. With so many of our national newspapers feeling like the dogmatic mouthpieces of private interests, the existence of this non-biased news source is more vital than ever.

Along with the NHS, the BBC is one of the few remaining bastions of public service. Rather than being driven by profit margins and stakeholder returns, it functions solely for the public good. As writer Simon Ravenscroft points out, this enables it to support initiatives that might not otherwise get a look-in – initiatives that serve social and cultural needs, rather than purely economic ones. In many ways, the sheer existence of the BBC subverts the prevailing Conservative view that private is best.

Like the NHS, then, it was inevitable that the BBC would eventually find itself circled by the spectre of private interests. With Osborne’s cuts feeling less like fiscal rectitude and more like an ideological clamp-down on public services, the BBC ought to get used to such attacks. There are already predictions that the burden of licence fees will severely hamper the BBC’s ability to provide quality programming. Rocketing bills from the Big Six energy companies and the underselling of Royal Mail shares provide further evidence what is best for the market rarely overlaps with what is best for the public. In his zeal to roll back the state, Osborne would do well to take note of this.

To quote the old phrase, George Osborne no doubt knows the price of the BBC. Let’s just hope he doesn’t forget its value.

 

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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