An unprecedented and vicious wave of attacks should serve as a rallying call to the corporation's supporters
by Polly Toynbee
The BBC is in graver danger than many of its friends may realise. Supporters need to be ready with a vigorous and vociferous defence. It has never come under such an ominous onslaught of attacks from so many directions.
To be sure, the BBC routinely falls out with every government, always accused of anti-government bias especially in wartime. Remember Tebbit's attacks on Kate Adie over the Libya bombings or Downing Street strafing the BBC during the Falklands war (the BBC said "British", instead of "our", troops). But Labour's sniper fire turned nuclear over BBC reporting on Iraq - despite independent academic evidence showing it was the most balanced. The BBC always takes a thrashing because, as the only national emblem, it gets the blame for all national failings - morals, illiteracy, dumbing down ... whatever.
But this multi-headed assault is something new. Gilligan's contrition this week unleashed an avalanche of BBC loathing from the rightwing press. The Telegraph's Beebwatch, mimicking the Daily Mail's Marrwatch, is bent on proving pink bias. Murdoch's press bellows out anti-BBC propaganda from every organ in the sonorously dishonest tones of his broadsheets or the bullying of his tabloids: "The BBC must sack the hopeless hack Gilligan ... he must not be allowed on the airwaves again," says the Sun. So the BBC should take lessons in journalism from the likes of these?
Here are the BBC's serious new threats: in the next four years, Sky's income will double the BBC's, and it will be able to make programmes on a big scale for the first time. Just as its cash dominated sport and film rights, it could sweep up all popular programming. Remember the recent MacTaggart lecture given by the Sky CEO Tony Ball, calling for the BBC to be forced to sell off all popular programmes, leaving just the public service broadcasting no one else wants - news, arts and education.
Without popular programmes, the licence fee would lose its justification. Even the BBC's public service broadcasting remit is threatened by those who want to share out licence-fee money with others. With history, science and arts channels, who needs a BBC at all? Can the government resist Murdoch pressure? Since the disgraceful communications bill was amended to weaken Murdoch's grip only by the force of the Lords, there is no reason to be sanguine about Labour's intentions.
As charter renewal approaches, all governments like to flex their muscles. This time the Gilligan affair has made the BBC governors dangerously vulnerable. Can they act as both regulators and defenders of the BBC, ask the BBC's enemies, disingenuously. Why not hand the BBC over to Ofcom to be regulated alongside the other broadcasters? This is far more lethal than it sounds, since, commercially, it will impose a level playing field. But the BBC is not in a "market" and must not be levelled. It belongs to the nation, and others can find their commercial niches around it where they can. Let it dominate if it can, in the name of citizens, for their good.
As for Ofcom, led by a CEO flush with a golden goodbye from the multibillion- pound wreckage of NTL, it already has 230 legal duties and already risks failing to improve the five weak regulators it replaces. Oftel's record in failing to protect ITN's quality against predators is an indicator of how little nurturing the BBC could expect against the buffetings of its commercial rivals in that shark pool. The BBC governors may represent a quaint institution - but their sole duty is to protect public service broadcasting. They are the BBC's champions in any conflict: Ofcom would just split the difference with its enemies.
For an indicator of what is to come, study Tessa Jowell's current review of the BBC's brilliant and world-beating online service. If she listens to false arguments about "unfair" online competition and cuts it back, then fear the worst for the BBC's future governance under its 2006 charter. Her promise of a "radical and wide-ranging review" of the charter was ominous in the context of these times. She hastened to deny any threat, but it lingers in the air none the less.