The BBC’s Andrew Neil probably made a mistake when he publicly challenged Boris Johnson to give him a pre-election interview, writes Simon Kelner
When Andrew Neil looked directly into the camera to address the nation in portentous tones, and effectively called Boris Johnson a coward for not agreeing to be interviewed by him, something told me that this was not going to end well.
Of course, it was great theatre, and at the time it seemed important: why shouldn’t the Prime Minister, like the other party leaders, be subjected to trial by the BBC’s chief inquisitor?
But part of me was fearful that, should things turn out in Johnson’s favour, a terrible vengeance could be meted out.
We haven’t had to wait long to find out. Hardly had he returned to Downing Street in triumph that Johnson sent out the message that the BBC was in his purview, and not in a good way.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury told Andrew Marr on Sunday morning that the Government was considering whether to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee.
The significance of this is worth consideration. The BBC charter doesn’t come up for renewal until 2027, so the corporation’s existence in its present state is safeguarded until then.
An existential threat
In the meantime, a Government angry about Andrew Neil’s monologue, and the BBC’s “extensive coverage” (the Tories’ words) of the four-year-old boy forced to sleep on a hospital floor, and the combative nature of interviews on the Today programme, and a perceived liberal bias of BBC journalists, may decide it will do what it can to enfeeble the institution.
So, in a symbolic move, it says it’s thinking of decriminalising licence fee evasion (which the BBC says will result in a £200m loss to its funding) and it re-appoints Nicky Morgan as Culture Secretary, even though she stood down as an MP. Morgan has already said she is “open-minded” about replacing the licence fee with a subscription model, so we know that she is prepared to think the unthinkable.
No wonder many of the BBC’s supporters feel this is an existential threat like no other. Johnson has a blank cheque from the electorate, he has most of the British press (and even opposition politicians) on his side in this particular battle, and he is driven by righteous indignation.
In retrospect, and hindsight, the Andrew Neil address to the nation was probably a mistake (it never touched the sides for voters in Warrington and Workington, anyway), and, in truth, the corporation didn’t have a flawless election.
But the fact that both the Tories and Labour complained that the BBC was partisan in its coverage was the greatest example of confirmation bias we are likely to see. As Huw Edwards put it eloquently in the i newspaper this week, the idea that the BBC is institutionally biased is risible, and is evidenced only by the prejudices and allegiances of its accusers.
Of all the issues facing the nation, the future of the BBC is hardly the most urgent. Nevertheless, the fact that the new Government has moved so quickly to unsettle its foundations should tell us something.
The BBC is important in a totemic sense. It is important to a Government that seeks to wield power, settle scores, and get a complicated organism to bend to its own will.
Its importance to us, the British people, is much greater, however. For all its faults, it is a cherished and estimable part and of our cultural, political and social fabric, and a hegemonic Government should not be allowed to weaken it without a big fight.