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Editorial The Tories, the BBC and attacks on the elderly

TORY attempts to claim the removal of free TV licences for the elderly has nothing to do with them won’t wash.

The Conservative Party may be in crisis, but its centuries-old instinct to divide and rule remains strong. By demanding that the BBC revisit its decision, declaring herself “very disappointed” that free TV licences for the over-75s are soon to be means-tested and claiming “we expected the BBC to continue this concession,” Theresa May seeks to present this as a call by a public-sector agency which has nothing to do with her or her government.

Better yet, by pointing to the sums the BBC receives in licence fees and in the sale of content abroad, she is able to portray the institution as awash with cash and terrible at managing its money, playing straight to the neoliberal songbook that associates public ownership with inefficiency. It is no secret that the media tycoons who dominate the print press and have steadily increased their presence in broadcast media over recent decades would love to see the back of the Beeb and the final triumph of commercialised, corporate advert-driven television and radio.

In reality this is a spending cut – and a Tory spending cut. When then-chancellor George Osborne forced the BBC to take responsibility for funding the concession in 2015, he was well aware that its cost would amount to a fifth of the BBC’s entire annual income. He knew full well that either the free TV licences were for the chop or the BBC would be compelled to make sweeping cuts elsewhere – “it is right that [the BBC], like other parts of the public sector, should make savings,” he smirked. As with so many parts of the Tory-Lib Dem austerity programme, this “saving” involves taking money out of the pockets of the vulnerable.

It is not the only additional cost the government has saddled the public broadcaster with: as National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet pointed out last November, licence fee settlements over the past decade have involved “making the BBC cover the costs of digital switchover from analogue TV; rural broadband roll out; funding of Welsh-language channel S4C, funding of the World Service and Monitoring Service [and] funding commercial broadcasters to make children’s TV and radio.” The result? “Salami-slicing that inevitably impacts quality programming and journalism.”

Correctly identifying Tory responsibility for the cut does not get BBC bosses off the hook, however. May’s propaganda offensive will resonate with a public acutely aware of the astronomical salaries the broadcaster pays many of its stars.

Resentment at being forced to pay the licence fee when BBC journalism and entertainment is increasingly indistinguishable from that provided by its commercial rivals – indeed, its political journalism has often proved even more unashamedly partisan than that of competitors like Sky News – will put wind beneath the wings of vultures keen to see an end to public broadcasting altogether.

What’s needed, as Stanistreet said this week, is a “radically different approach to running and preserving our public service broadcaster.”

It’s time BBC policies dating back to the Thatcher period, including an internal market of competing cost-centres, forced outsourcing of production and a corporate culture that sees “stars” paid preposterous salaries because of competition with private-sector rivals, are thrown out.

It’s time the regressive licence fee, a poll tax falling hardest on the poorest, is revisited. It could easily be supplemented by the tax on big tech businesses and broadband providers which Jeremy Corbyn has suggested could be used to subsidise licence fees. And a public and staff voice over who gets to sit on the BBC’s board, another Labour policy, could help address the corporation’s role as an Establishment propaganda mouthpiece and renew popular support for public service media.

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