In a notorious talk given to Conservative Future in 2009, Sean Gabb made the following radical recommendation:
On the first day of your government, you should close down the BBC. You should take it off air. You should disclaim its copyrights. You should throw all its staff into the street … You must shut it down – and shut it down at once.
I have for many years been torn between thinking this a good idea, and thinking that it would result in such uproar that the government would immediately fall, and be replaced by a new government who would restore the BBC. But the question was purely abstract anyway, because no Conservative government would even contemplate doing such a thing. No Conservative government was even going to contemplate taking away the licence fee.
But finally, after three years of disgraceful conduct — well, extra disgraceful conduct — the future of the BBC is finally an issue that that can be broached. It’s finally an issue that can be talked about without people throwing up their hands in horror and demanding you be thrown out of wherever you are. People will listen sympathetically if you suggest that the BBC can’t go on like it has been. People will join in enthusiastically if you say that Channel 4 is a disgrace that should no longer be state-funded. Well, not if you’re in the common room. But in the ordinary pubs around the country they will. They will at the dinner parties that are being held outside the M25. And even some inside it.
So what should be done? The conventional conservative/libertarian idea is that the BBC should be moved to a subscription model. The more radical Gabb idea is not one that has ever been talked about much. In fact, it’s an idea that until recently would have shocked most people, even most conservatives. (If you read to the end of the Gabb article, you’ll see that the young conservatives were themselves outraged by Gabb’s idea). But actually it’s a very good idea. Because here’s the thing. If you privatise the BBC, it may do very well for itself, and then it would be free to spin the news far more outrageously than it currently does.
If you doubt that it could do well, if you’re thinking, well, how are they going to bring in 3.5 billion pounds a year from voluntary subscriptions, the answer is that they don’t have to match their current funding. Because once they’re private they can jettison a lot of the stuff they’re forced to produce, cut down their output radically, and focus more on the stuff they can sell overseas for a shedload of money, while ramping up the political shows which aren’t that expensive to make. Say they only need one billion a year in that scenario. If they get ten million subscribers, that’s only £100 a subscriber. Or £200 if it’s five million subscribers. I can imagine they’d manage that, every virtue-signaller in the country would want to subscribe as a point of honour.
There was a time when naive conservatives and libertarians fondly imagined that the rigors of the free market would knock some sense into the BBC, as it would any other industry, but the last few years have surely seen that delusion laid to rest. Gabb, I note, never fell for that:
You should not try to privatise the BBC. This would simply be to transfer the voice of your enemy from the public to the private sector, where it might be more effective in its opposition.
So why free the BBC up from any sort of requirement to be objective when you can just liquidate it instead, and throw the bums out onto the streets where they have to get a real job? I would have said that three years ago people would have been too horrified at the thought of closing down dear old Aunty BBC for it to be a realistic option, but now dear old Aunty has revealed herself to be a mad old obsessive who won’t stop going on about the same topics over and over and telling everyone else in the family that they’re bad. She’s clearly gone do-lally, the kids stopped listening to her years ago, and the grownups have noticed how much she smells. And how much she costs.
Richard Delingpole tweeted this sort of idea recently, and got thousands of likes and retweets:
Call me a Radical, but I wouldn’t just stop the licence fee. I’d close down the BBC. Sack everyone. Demolish the buildings. Salt the ground.
— Richard Delingpole (@DickDelingpole) November 24, 2019
So the idea is no longer so alien. Particularly amongst younger people, who just don’t watch the BBC any more. They generally don’t watch much TV at all, they prefer YouTube and TikTok (which are filled with rubbish, it has to be said, but that’s another story), but they especially don’t watch the BBC (or channel 4). So most young people won’t even notice if the BBC is closed down, although about thirty sociology undergraduates will eventually tweet about it once their lecturers tell them what’s happened, and then the Guardian will have a fit and try to make it a big story, but there’ll be no BBC to amplify that, so it won’t be that effective. And the other channels are unlikely to shed too many tears over the shutdown of a subsidised rival (although I expect that the news staff will as they’re all lefties now).
Also, the BBC doesn’t make anything worth watching any more. The only thing that people really cling on to now is that ballroom dancing show (which I wouldn’t watch even if you paid me). Everything else that people used to love, like Doctor Who, has been ruined. Bake Off has gone elsewhere. Most of its comedy shows have for years been abysmal. There’s not much sport on it. The kids’ shows are so anodyne that they’re unwatchable. Who’s really going to cry if they realise they’re not going to see as much of Clare Balding as before, other than a few sporty lezzos?
Also, shutting it down will be easier now that most of the programmes are made by outside production companies, rather than in-house. That means there won’t even be as much gear to sell off as if it you’d done it twenty years ago. And its new location in Salford means that it lacks a strong London media-friendly focal point for protests.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is genuine anger in much of the country over the blatant bias that the BBC is now showing. It’s so naked and in your face that there’s never been a more auspicious time to blow the BBC up, and have half the country rise to their feet and cheer. Even those who stay seated won’t miss it that much.
So I think it is doable. One problem, though, which didn’t exist so much when Gabb wrote his article, is today’s highly politicised courts. There will be a huge series of lawsuits launched if the BBC is shut down overnight, to do with existing contracts. These can be paid off, of course, but you can expect the activist Supreme Court to also come up with some legal ‘reasoning’ that enables them to declare that it’s all unlawful, and the BBC must be restored at once, and never touched again.
But the real problem, of course, is that the Conservatives would never do this in a million years. They might just – might – turn the BBC into a subscription service, eventually. They might just shut down channel 4 if a portly pink bird with a snout is sighted. But shut down the BBC? The Tories would be on the front line defending it.
There’s another option, though, that I’m going to explore in a further blog post soon. Update: That post is here:
Update: This is what people outside the bubble think of the BBC now — Nish Kumar booed off stage:
The guy who posted the video has just locked down his account.
So just in case anyone else missed #NishKumar getting booed off stage… here it is again.
Outstanding 😂😂😂👍 pic.twitter.com/3MxjKvvYHx
— News Addict 🇬🇧 (@addicted2newz) December 3, 2019