CUMMINGS DEPARTURE ‘STOPS CHANCE OF BBC REFORM’: Robin Aitken (£ Telegraph 16/11) argued that the removal of Dominic Cummings from the inner circle of Boris Johnson advisors was a ‘disaster for any hope of serious BBC reform’. He stated:
‘The taxi that took Dominic Cummings away from Downing Street for the last time was carrying more than just the Prime Minister’s ex-chief adviser; it also carried away any realistic hope that the Johnson government might deliver on reform of the BBC. With Cummings gone the chances that there will be any serious assault on the Corporation’s privileges and prerogatives are severely diminished.
‘Dominic Cummings was the one person in the heart of government who understood why it was essential to take on the BBC. He could see what so many others seem unable to – that the BBC stands in opposition to everything that real conservatism consists of. Cummings departure is therefore a huge victory for the liberal-left Establishment.
‘When the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis unburdened herself of her heartfelt contempt for Cummings and Johnson back in May she left no one in any doubt about her own politics. But her forthright editorialising also gave an insight into BBC thinking. It should always be remembered that what the BBC broadcasts is never the work of just one individual; broadcasting is a collaborative venture.
‘Maitlis would not have been able to simply write out her diatribe and then deliver it on-air without anyone else knowing. That script would have been seen and maybe amended by at least a couple of other BBC journalists – probably a senior producer and the programme editor would have read it through. It was, in fact, a considered and calculated attack which had the approval of senior editorial figures.
‘And what Maitlis’ verbal assault showed was just how rattled the BBC was by the knowledge that standing just behind the Prime Minister, and whispering in his ear, was someone who was its sworn enemy. Which is why the BBC news operation mounted such a sustained and vicious campaign to paint Cummings’ road-trip to the north in the blackest of colours; the Corporation was desperate to get rid of a man it rightly saw as a threat.
From the amount of coverage the BBC gave the story, and its tone, one might have thought Cummings stood accused of some serious crime rather than a minor (non-criminal) infringement of the rules made by a concerned father making childcare arrangements. However on that occasion the BBC’s hysterical campaign to unseat Cummings failed and Johnson stood by his man; but now, thanks to the PM’s girlfriend, they have the scalp they most wanted and the chances of meaningful reform of the BBC have plummeted.
‘Buried amid all the media comment over the weekend about the defenestration of Lee Cain and subsequent resignation of Dominic Cummings was a line about how the government is now going to drop its much-trailed intention of decriminalising non-payment of the BBC license fee. This is highly significant. The plan to make non-payment a civil, rather than a criminal, matter had been bruited since the beginning of the year. It was strongly hinted that this was one of Cummings’s ideas designed to undermine and weaken the BBC’s position.
‘There were some, perhaps inflated, estimates of how much such a move would cost the BBC in lost revenue – between £200 and £300 million annually, it was said – but more significantly it would have demonstrated a symbolic distancing from the principle of the license fee. And nothing is more important to the Corporation’s high command than ensuring the license fee’s continuation because it is the foundation upon which the entire edifice rests.
‘So the fact that now, in the immediate aftermath of Cummings’ departure, de-criminalisation is off the agenda points to an important new development; the government is suing for peace, and on the BBC’s terms. For who now, in the upper reaches of the government has the stomach for a fight with the BBC?
‘In these pages on Saturday Charles Moore, writing about Mr Cummings’s departure from No 10, detailed his remarkable successes on Brexit which came against all the odds; the referendum campaign itself and then the guerilla warfare in Parliament which coaxed and goaded the opposition into agreeing to a general election which Johnson then won handsomely. As Lord Moore said, all this was achieved “against the most bitter Establishment resistance in living memory”. And it is true that that the BBC was itself the stoutest, most constant supporter of that Establishment fight-back. As close textual analyses of the BBC’s output have demonstrated, the BBC’s coverage of Brexit heavily favoured, by a ratio of roughly 2:1, the pro-EU position.
‘It was that bias which provided the casus belli for the government against the Corporation. The European issue has been the dominant issue in British politics for forty years; it was an issue where unbiased, impartial information and news coverage would have been enormously beneficial to the whole nation. Instead of which, in dereliction of its duty of impartiality, the BBC showed consistent favouritism to the pro-Europeans. For Dominic Cummings that partisanship provided all the justification he needed to take-on the Corporation, to challenge its pretensions of impartiality and to threaten it with the removal of its privileges.
‘So what now? With Cummings gone the danger is that the government will lose all appetite for a war against the BBC because, without doubt, it would have been a protracted and politically bloody affair. It would have required determination and a willingness to spend a lot of political capital. That same Establishment which fought, tooth and nail, to prevent the democratic will of the people from being implemented, would certainly have rallied around the BBC if it was in any serious way threatened.
The BBC can count among its allies the entire arts establishment, academia and the education lobby, reliable media allies like the Guardian and Channel 4, as well as a huge swathe of Parliamentarians in both Houses. The BBC lined-up solidly behind the Establishment on Brexit and the favour would have been returned with interest.
With Dominic Cummings in No 10 – the man who once wrote that the BBC was “the mortal enemy” of the Conservative Party – there was a chance, albeit a slim one, that the Tories would free themselves of the Stockholm Syndrome which has always hampered their dealings with the Corporation. Too many Tories labour under the illusion that the BBC is neutral towards them and now the one man who was clear-sighted on the issue has been booted out. In his place we have the Prime Minister’s girlfriend Carrie Symonds and her buddy Allegra Stratton.
‘Between them these two seem to have thoroughly brow-beaten the Prime Minister. Johnson is now a much-diminished figure and the BBC will be cheering. It seems more than likely that the Tories under Johnson will now slump back into their comfort zone; that could well turn out to be something depressingly reminiscent of the Cameron administration – a ‘CINO’ government “conservative in name only”.
‘There is an outside chance that the panel set up by the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to examine the future of the BBC license fee will recommend its abolition. But the portents are not encouraging. As that indispensable right-of-centre news website Guido Fawkes has pointed out none of the panel members has any track record of criticising the license fee. On the contrary the 10 members look like a mix of industry insiders and establishment placemen much more likely to favour the status quo.
All of this adds up to a black day for reformers and a wonderful one for the BBC. Cummings, its enemy, has been unceremoniously dispatched and the Prime Minister has now chosen his girlfriend as his principle adviser. With one bound the Corporation was free. As Private Eye’s long-running BBC satirical cartoon strip ‘Corporation Street’ might have put it: “Trebles all round!”‘.