LONDON, October 23, 2003 -- If you live any decent amount of time in the USA, as I do, broadcast media will drive you nuts. So it's been fascinating watching what has been going on in our media over the past few months. The attacks on the BBC by Tony Blair and his government, joinging forces with Rupert Murdoch and his executives at BSkyB, must be viewed in the context of what's already become a fait accompli in the United States -- the diminution of public space, especially public broadcasting space, by the ever more powerful forces of privatization.
The effort in America dates back more than a decade, with attacks on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) as a 'left-wing' network; with US$300 million in appropriations from Congress being held up by then-Senator Robert Dole; and with carefully co-ordinated conservative ad hominem blasts against such supposedly 'left-wing presences' on public television as Bill Moyers, David Fanning (who produces the pre-eminent documentary strand "Frontline,") and Rory O'Connor and Danny Schechter of Globalvision, and their purportedly 'hard-line Marxist' human rights series "South Africa Now" and "Rights and Wrongs."
Eventually the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, went so far as to attempt to get rid of PBS entirely. Although the Gingrich effort failed to destroy public broadcasting, it was left weakened and more vulnerable than ever -- dependent on an increasingly polarized Congress for funding, and prone to staving off extinction and striving for more 'balance' by funding explicitly conservative programmes, producers and hosts.
Here in Britain, of course, the BBC has one great advantage over PBS in America -- the freedom from such political pressure that is afforded by the annual license fee that TV owners pay to fund BBC programming. This ensures that the Beeb is far less vulnerable to political pressures than PBS, which must get its appropriations approved every year from Congress.
The BBC is supported instead by an annual tax of £116 (US$195) paid by every British household that owns one or more televisions. The tax raises as much as $4.2 billion for the BBC every year and nobody in government can reapportion it or redistribute it. Thus the BBC, unlike every other public-broadcasting system in the world, is not only well funded but also well protected from politicians.
IN RUPERT'S GUNSITES
Every ten years, though, there's a charter review in which the budget and performance of the BBC is re-assessed. The next one is in 2006 and as the BBC is one of the most influential institutions in British life, the upcoming review will be one of the nation's most profound political battles. As media maven Michael Wolff puts it, it's all "about getting a piece of the pie. Or at least it's a fight about Murdoch's piece of the pie."
Not surprisingly, then, Rupert Murdoch and his political cronies have begun to lay the groundwork for an all-out assault on the BBC and the annual fee. While they will probably not be able to eliminate it, their endless attacks, slanted polls, and political pressuring may well result in a lessening of the amount the BBC gets annually, thus weakening the BEEB as a 'public' competitor to all private interests, but especially to the multi-channel Murdochian news and entertainment network BSkyB.
All this must be viewed through the prism of what otherwise appears the oddest of couplings: Rupert and Tony Blair. Blair first became Prime Minister owing in large measure to the endorsements of the traditionally right wing Murdoch press. It now seems apparent that Blair made a devilish pact years ago to garner Murdoch's support, despite their obvious political differences, and Murdoch is now collecting his payback on the instalment plan.
Couple this scenario with the BBC's controversial Iraq War reporting, the drama over reporter Andrew Gilligan's accusation that the Blair government "sexed up" the WMD dossier, (which led, in turn, to the suicide of weapons expert and BBC source David Kelly,) and the Blair government's resultant assault on the BBC -- and the interests of Blair, Murdoch and the American right-wing can be seen to merge.
Part of the Blair animosity toward the BBC is that he is in partnership with Murdoch, and this is in part Murdoch's war with the BBC.
Thus Blair and his then-mouthpiece Alastair Campbell went to war against the BBC with two aims: one, to distract attention from whether the nation and the world was deceived on the road to war against Saddam; the other to soften up the BBC for Rupert down the line, and reduce British broadcasting to what one Labour Party renegade, Claire Short, has termed "the sort of commercially dominated, biased news reporting that controls the US airwaves."
EVERYTHING 'UP FOR GRABS'
Announcing the formation of a charter advisory panel, Tessa Jowell, Labour's culture secretary, recently announced that everything was up for grabs, including how the BBC "should be funded and regulated and whether it delivers good value for money."
And Gerald Kaufman, the Labour member of Parliament who, as chairman of the Commons committee on culture and the media, has emerged as one of the BBC's most vocal opponents, was even more blunt. "The BBC is no longer relied on in the way it was," claimed Kaufman. "It's placed itself in a situation where its word isn't accepted automatically anymore. It's gone from being an institution to just another broadcaster, and a shoddy one at that."
Add to all this the next salvo -- Murdoch crony Tony Ball's recent claims that growing public antagonism is the real threat to the BBC's future. Citing his own poll, Ball claimed that more than half of all Brits don't think they are getting their money's worth from the license fee (or 'unfair tax' as Ball terms it,) that money spent by the BBC is 'money coerced,' and so on.
Ball posits that "today, television is much more democratic," and that "anyone can launch a TV channel." And he adds that the forthcoming BBC charter review provides an opportunity to start "from first principles." In other words, let's throw out the past and re-examine from scratch, a highly dangerous proposition of course when dealing with "compulsory taxes" like the license fee.
In the ideal world then, from Murdoch's vantage point, the BBC would become something much more like public television in the U.S. -- there, but hardly there. Now, with charter review coming up, if he can grab a little more leverage and power at the expense of the BBC, he will certainly do it -- and his lapdog Tony Blair will be yipping along with him every step along the "fair-and-balanced" way to the Foxification of England.
-- Dame Anita Roddick is a board member of Mediachannel.org, the global media watchdog.