Has the BBC ever been so nakedly furious with the Government?

In nearly 20 years of covering the BBC, Ben Dowell has never seen the Corporation fight back like it did today. The gloves, it seems, are off…

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We all know what happens when the BBC deals with the Government. When it comes to negotiating its funding, it tends to gentle, coaxing, diplomatic – at least in public.

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When the BBC is in crisis – as it was over the Jimmy Savile revelations and the damming Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly – it tends to be quite craven. Take the time in 2005, post-Hutton, when Mark Byford, the deputy director-general who stepped into the shoes of outgoing boss Greg Dyke, promised that BBC news would not be in the business of seeking exclusives as Auntie lay on the canvas, beaten. BBC news journalists were furious about this limp-wristed response, especially as many felt Hutton had judged the Corporation too harshly and should have laid more blame at the door of the Blair Government.

But today we saw a different, nakedly aggressive side to the BBC – one which, in nearly 20 years of reporting on its dealings with Whitehall, I don’t think I have seen before. 

We all know that the BBC doesn’t like what the Government is doing. The Tory green paper, which will look into the size and scope of the BBC’s operations, promises to run the rule over the BBC in a move that could fundamentally change what the BBC is and does. It comes with dire warnings from within the Department of Culture, Media and Sport about the BBC’s future, and suggestions that maybe the “regressive” licence fee could be done away with and replaced with a subscription model.

This time, though, the BBC isn’t rolling over. You could see it in the eyes of Tony Hall as he delivered the Corporation’s annual report on Tuesday. The man looked furious.

And now the BBC has issued a statement in response to the Government’s 86-page consultation document saying that the tone and questions posed in the paper “would be bad for Britain” and would lead to a “much diminished, less popular” BBC and would undermine “the BBC that the public has known and loved for over 90 years”.

It continued: “It is important that we hear what the public want. It should be for the public to decide whether programmes like Strictly or Bake Off, or stations like Radio 1 or 2, should continue.

“The BBC is not owned by its staff or by politicians, it is owned by the public. They are our shareholders. They pay the licence fee. Their voice should be heard the loudest.”

Yesterday the shadow culture secretary Chris Bryant told journalists that the job of culture secretary was historically undervalued and should be seen as important, not just as a stepping-stone to a bigger ministerial brief. He said he wants to stay in the job if his choice as the next Labour leader – Yvette Cooper – gets the job.

The BBC touches the lives of the public in many and varied ways, Bryant continued. It is, he said, crucially important – and so is the question of licence-fee renewal.

Today the BBC demonstrated that it’s prepared to fight its corner, but whether the public will go with them remains to be seen.

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