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The BBC's Pound of Flesh By: Val MacQueen
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, August 05, 2003


The once-venerable BBC has fallen upon hard times. The international news organization, which once enjoyed a worldwide reputation as the gold standard of impartial broadcasting, has become an outpost of the Left. Since the Sixties, the radical Left has become embedded in the BBC, transforming it into a kingdom of its own. Its efforts are lavishly supported by the mandatory £116 annual “license” fees of 20 million households. You see, for the pleasure of watching TV, or listening to the radio, in Britain, there is a £116 ($174) ‘license fee,’ which goes solely to support the BBC.  It matters not whether you ever watch the BBC or listen to it – and certainly not whether you agree with its Euro-socialist outlook.  The BBC’s argument in favor of the mandatory license fee was that it kept the BBC from relying on commercial dollars, and thus freed the BBC not to pander to advertisers.  Whether British seniors on social security, lower income people, young people – and millions of other wage earners wouldn’t prefer to save the £116 p.a. license fee and endure some pandering to commercial (as opposed to political) interests was never on the table. If there’s a television in your house, you are legally obliged, under legal penalty, to pay for the upkeep of the BBC.

. . . Even if the BBC is sowing the seeds of dissension within your ranks. During the Iraqi war, the military personnel and sailors on board the HMS Ark Royal, Britain’s largest aircraft carrier, became so depressed by the BBC’s coverage, they petitioned the ship’s captain to cancel the BBC and replace it with CNN. Anyone who depended, during the war, on the BBC alone for coverage would have been astounded at the news that the Coalition won.  Nor is the BBC merely declining among veterans and their families. Its most important radio station, Radio Four, which caters to an educated, middle class audience, has lost 339,000 disaffected listeners since March.   That is one-third-of-a-million license payers who gave up on BBC radio’s defeatist coverage, which their mandatory fees financed.  In addition to being an avid supporter of the United Nations, the BBC lavishes unwarranted favorable coverage upon Amnesty International. (Amnesty has expressed dainty reservations about the killing of Uday and Qusay.) 

Current affairs and discussion programs now routinely feature two or three left-wing panelists and one moderately right-leaning participant (for “balance”); never expect to see a seasoned and effective conservative on the British “telly.”  The studio audience is packed with fellow left-wingers who begin to bray and drown out the conservative the instant he opens his mouth.  In other words, the BBC has arrogantly cast off its mantle of impartiality and its duty to cover the major strands of its license payers’ political beliefs.

The BBC is a relentless promoter of “multiculturalism,” quixotically fostering the pretense that Britain (which is 94 percent Anglo-Saxon) is a predominantly black country.  Domestic stories on its website are routinely illustrated with photos taken from the 5.8 percent ethnic immigrant population.  The BBC’s online feedback section, “Have Your Say” – which they pretend “fairly reflects” the views of correspondence received – is overwhelmingly weighted to anti-Americanism (e.g., the constant refrain that U.S. troops “torture” prisoners or war) and rude sniping at the Conservative Party.  Since Blair’s Labour Party came to power six years ago, the job of Chairman of the Board of Governors has gone to Labour apparachik and party contributor Gavyn Davis.  The job of Director-General has gone to another Labour contributor, Greg Dyke.  The chief political editor, Andrew Marr, had previously been a well-known Labour-supporting opinion columnist.  All three were parachuted into the corporation just after Labour won the election…so much for its formerly impeccable reputation for neutrality.   The BBC is now regarded, even by many Britons, as the propaganda arm of No 10 Downing St.

Many believe the current mutual flinging of mud over the death of Dr. David Kelly is a distraction orchestrated by Blair’s wizard of Oz, smoke and mirror expert Alastair Campbell, to neatly obfuscate what Dr. Kelly had really been saying.  The Labour government isn’t going to threaten the license fee and the institutionally statist BBC isn’t going to do any damage to the government.  Their symbiotic relationship is too strong.

Now, along comes Sunday Times columnist Jonathan Miller, who, around a year ago, began campaigning for the abolition of the license fee.  If the Board of Governors is so confident that the BBC is universally adored by viewers and listeners, let it vie for subscriptions in the open market, he says.  Or let it go to the wall.

Normally, the BBC flicks off nasty little nonentities who make such suggestions with a supercilious sneer, but Jonathan Miller is a national name.  Worse, he’s witty and self-confident.  And he has the intestinal fortitude for a fight.   Worse still, he’s putting himself on the line by publicly refusing to pay his mandatory license fee.  And he has a platform: His column in The Sunday Times.

Miller has been doing a little investigative work of his own and has discovered that the draconian license fee collecting operation – provided by a company named Capita, which was last year judged Britain’s most intrusive company - is targeted by zip code.  The poorer you are, the more likely you are to get threatening letters and, later, have “an inspector” turn up on your doorstep.  Pointless to claim you haven’t got a TV, because Capita has disguised detector vans prowling the streets of Britain, and can tell you what hours you had your TV on and what you watched.

Primary targets for harassment are single mothers in the poorest areas of Britain, presumably because such persons have neither the educational nor monetary resources to take on the mighty, monolithic BBC.  Penalty for not being able to pay your license fee?  A fine.  For those who can’t manage the fine, it’s a mandatory prison sentence.  In fact, a high proportion of Britain’s female prisoners are single mothers who couldn’t swing the license fee or the £400 ($600) fine.  Next most targeted are the unemployed and senior citizens.  Capita is without parallel among other debt collection agencies in Britain, employing intimidating practices.  One such tactic is pasting posters on the London Underground and other areas showing a residential block, with the message (real streets and zip codes are used):  This is Elm Street.  A family on the 1800 block hasn’t paid their license fee.  Do you know who they are? 

Another intimidating tactic is the threatening letters they send out. Capita catches around 1,000 license evaders per day, from which one might conclude that the public is not as enamored of the BBC as it says they are.  Clearly, vast numbers of middle class viewers also try to evade the license.  The difference is, when the middle classes are caught, they stump up the license fee and pay the fine.

And how is this largesse distributed?"  Well, to the Cruella de Ville of quiz shows The Weakest Link's Anne Robinson, for a start.  She clocks in at £3m ($4.5 million) a year.  Total salaries and bonuses for the Executive Committee, including Director General Greg Dyke, come to £4.825m ($7,237,500).  Including benefits, that total rises to around $1 billion a year.   Mind you, this isn’t to fund the BBC’s 40,000 staff members.  This is just for the Executive Committee. 

The BBC also competes outrageously unfairly with commercial broadcasters, using coffers awash in license money to launch new services and digital channels that commercial companies would need to borrow to fund start-up.  Indeed, so profligate has it become that it runs a 24-hour channel, Liquid News, which the BBC's own electronic monitoring has determined has no viewers.

Given the range of digital and satellite channels now available, the question is, how long can the BBC hold onto to its privileged status of a guaranteed three billion or so pounds per year?  Well, as long as the Labour Party is in power, it would seem.   But, as journalist Barbara Amiel writes, “If Parliament allows the BBC to represent the Kelly matter as a battle for its editorial independence rather than a fight for its relentless bias, the BBC will continue to substitute its own policies for those of the elected officials in determining the success or failure of foreign policy.”

That Jonathan Miller has frightened the BBC is evidenced by the fact that the BBC mustered six famous trial lawyers for a preliminary hearing of his case before a lowly magistrate’s court to determine what evidence would be permissible at his court case.  Even one high-powered trial lawyer would have been pushing the boat out a bit for a magistrate’s hearing.  But six?  Miller won’t have a substantive hearing until September, when he expects to be sent to prison.  As he says:  “It would take a very brave judge to find that the license fee isn’t justified and isn’t really legal.  Such a pronouncement in a court of law would destroy the BBC at a stroke, and the BBC is not a nice enemy to have.”  Then again, neither is a martyred columnist for the Sunday Times.




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