Years ago, back when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, and David Cameron was leader of the Opposition, and “doing something big in banking” was still a compliment, the BBC got itself entangled in some mess or other. I cannot remember now exactly the details of the row, but critics of the Beeb were furious, and there was a great clamour from free market types like me for something to be done.
In those days I was deputy editor on the Sunday Telegraph. I got a tip-off from a Tory MP who disliked the state-owned broadcaster intensely for its alleged bias to the Left. This latest mess at the Beeb had, he told me, resolved Cameron to take radical action that sounded like privatisation. They had done it now, he said, and he personally had heard Cameron say that he was going to look at the way it was funded, and the scale of its operations, when he won the election. The Beeb’s goose was well and truly cooked. I went to editorial conference and imparted this news.
It was greeted with considerable interest, although we agreed that further phonecalls were needed. And one particularly wise old bird, the dear departed Jim Anderson, a veteran Fleet Street executive, expressed scepticism as we left the meeting. Was it possible Cameron would tell an over-excited MP what he wanted to hear, who had then repeated it to me over lunch?
I then phoned someone close to Cameron, who sighed. Yes, the BBC was entangled in a mess and there were questions to answer about funding. But no, a government led by David Cameron was not going to privatise the Beeb. Why, he had heard Cameron say on another occasion that he had not come into politics to declare war on the Archers and Terry Wogan. That would be an act of political self-harm.
I mention this now because of the row running about comments allegedly made by the Tory leader on his campaign battle bus during the election. Nick Robinson reported that a furious Cameron said he was going to close down the BBC if he won the election, which sounds to me like the kind of thing Cameron would say half in jest watching the six o’clock news when the tension is mounting and the polls are refusing to budge.
There are plenty of people – Tory donors, some Tory MPs, some other broadcasters, people who hate the licence fee – who think that Cameron should do exactly what it is claimed he said, or that he should at least sell it off or remove its funding. But it is simply not going to happen, for the reasons given by that Cameron confidant in opposition. It would make the introduction of the poll tax look popular and smooth-running.
Imagine the reaction if a Tory government did attempt to close or sell off the BBC. Imagine the rally on Trafalgar Square and the march down Whitehall fronted by Terry Wogan, the stars of Strictly Come Dancing, the cast of the Archers, Dame Judi Dench, the Songs of Praise Team, David Attenborough, Chris Evans, Ken Bruce, Kirsty Young, Kirsty Wark, the Children in Need bear, Sir Paul McCartney, the CBeebies crowd, Sir Lenny Henry, Graham Norton and Benedict Cumberbatch.
You only need to close your eyes and imagine that demo – and grasp that the people in Cameron’s mum’s village in Berkshire would probably regard selling off the Archers as an act of national folly on a par with surrendering to Hitler or firing the Queen – to realise that no matter what he mutters in anger he has zero desire to be dragged from Number 10 by irate viewers of Countryfile.