The Spectator's Notes

Charles Moore: State broadcasting allows fascism — and we're paying the fees for it

Plus: Cheerio, Charles Letts; I know what to put on the fourth plinth; why Ed Balls should be called '12A'

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

There has not been much good news out of Greece since the eurozone powers decided to crush the country, but it is heartening that the state broadcasting company, ERT, has been closed down. All such broadcasting systems, including the BBC, are attempts to impose certain political and cultural norms upon the population, and force them to pay for them. ‘This is how fascism works,’ protested one ERT ex-employee, as the riot police evicted her colleagues — who were trying to keep the service running — ‘slyly and in darkness’. She has got it back to front. Fascism (or communism) can prevail only if a state broadcasting system exists. Now that the conservative-dominated Greek government has stopped it and won its parliamentary vote of confidence, I hope that British Conservative politicians will learn the lesson. At present, the more adventurous among them are privately urging that the licence fee be removed from the monopoly control of the BBC and turned into a pot for public service broadcasting for which all could apply. This is an interesting idea, but not political enough. The Tories still fear that the BBC will try to trash them at the next election if they attack the licence fee. It will, but it is time to exploit the widespread dislike of the fee, especially among poorer voters. More than 10 per cent of all court cases in this country are TV licence non-payments. It is an unbelievable waste of court time and public money and, as I saw when I was convicted for this offence, a Dickensian scene of human misery. Single mothers who cannot scrape together the £145.50 demanded are dragged before the magistrate to pay the six-figure salaries of BBC bosses and stars. A cut would be very popular. Go into the next election promising to (say) halve the licence fee. This would immediately please millions and force the BBC to curtail its operations. Once its power starts to decline, it will never recover.

In terms of party-political share, the BBC grudgingly follows the rules, but in more cultural areas, its bias is so extreme as to be funny. Last week, the Monday afternoon play on Radio 4 was called Queens of the Coal Age. The actress Maxine Peake, a former member of the Communist party, wrote the play, and starred in it as battling Anne Scargill, the then wife of Arthur. Mrs Scargill was one of four women who, in 1993, sat-in down a pit in Lancashire in order to prevent its closure. They failed of course, but that only, according to the play, made them feel strong (‘We are women. We are strong,’ they sang). It was 45 minutes of unqualified agitprop. All the women were lovably working-class, heart-warmingly bawdy, and used exciting northern words like ‘butty’ and ‘champion!’ ‘What that woman did to us!’ they yelled, and we all knew who ‘That Woman’ was. Whatever your politics, you could not find one shred of artistic merit in the whole thing. I wonder if the BBC has ever run a play which has investigated the thought that the coal industry collapsed because Arthur Scargill called the 1984 strike without a ballot, thereby guaranteeing hatred, division and weakness within his own people.

Charles Letts died, aged 95, last week. He was legendary in Singapore, where he did business for three quarters of a century. Probably a British spy, and certainly a very brave prisoner of war held by the Japanese, Letts was a thoroughly British man who virtually never lived in this country, a figure of Empire. His obituaries did not add that he was once a director of The Spectator. This was because he was an old friend of Algy Cluff, who owned the paper in the early 1980s. There was no good reason for his directorship, since Charles knew nothing of the British media, but Algy disliked the doctrine that board directors should be adversarial. He thought that if they were friends, they would trust one another. As editor, I loved having Charles Letts on the board. He never tried to interfere, but he would give me lunch and draw me into a world familiar to Somerset Maugham or to Kipling, a world of which he was almost the last representative.


Although naturally disappointed that it turned out not to be a biopic of the Princess Royal’s ex-husband, we much enjoyed Paul Greengrass’s thrilling new film Captain Phillips. Needless to say, though, the facts of this ‘true’ story are contested by some former members of the crew, who accuse Captain Phillips of disregarding their safety etc. Equally needless to say, this contest is taking legal form and has already gone on for years. Crew members are suing the Maersk Line; $50 million are at stake. The law courts are the real frontier town of American life today, as tough as any gold rush community and a lot more complicated. Mr Greengrass could make a brilliant film about the law suit.

The Board of Film Classification decrees that Captain Phillips is 12A because it ‘contains moderate violence and threat’. I like that phrase, which seems an apt description of Ed Balls. I shall refer to him as ‘12A’ from now on.

Following this column’s mention of how Nelson surveys his fleet from his column, a reader, Mrs Margaret Howatson, writes to say that when she visited Trafalgar Square with school friends on Trafalgar Day in 1948 Nelson’s last signal to the fleet was spelt out in flags on a specially erected mast. Here is the solution for the problem of the fourth plinth: a permanent mast, with an annual cycle of Nelsonian signals.

A friend thinking of going on holiday to Cameroon recently looked up the country on its official tourism website. In the section marked ‘History’, it discloses that, in the 1990s, ‘the country experienced the multi-party system with unfortunate consequences’. Potential visitors are reassured that this problem has now been sorted out. President Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement is now the only legal political party and ‘Cameroon is a beautiful country where people live in security and tourists are warmly welcomed’.

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  • Nik23

    Interesting

  • Gio

    Sure… and several media groups owned by businesmen are independent sources of news with pluralism in information … lol

  • mikewaller

    We have to be deeply grateful that Charles Moore has so explicitly shared with us the precise way in which he and others of like mind intend to destroy the BBC. The extraordinary thing is that at precisely the same time they have set their hearts on creating here the kind of privately owned media horror story that currently obtains in the USA, decent people in America are currently doing all they can to create the kind of balanced journalism of which, in this country, the BBC is a pivotal element.If you put “Sue Wilson Media Action Center” into Google you will see what I am talking about.

    But let us be fair, Moore has evidence to sport his case: to wit, a play broadcast by Radio 4 which centred on Anne Scargill’s roll in the miners’ strike. This he would have us believe, is part of an overarching left-wing conspiracy that is intended to create a communistic totalitarian state in the UK and, no doubt, put poor Charles in a gulag. There are several problems with this thesis. First, the dear old beeb is very much a multifaceted jewel. That was one play, there of dozen of others in a year on a whole range of topics and if there is a common theme to many of them it is the good old wishy-washy Christian message that it would be a jolly good idea if we were nice to one another. Nor is everything designed to support the idea of state institutions are good for you. Listen to “Clare in the Community” and you will come away with a far from positive view of social workers.

    Quite apart from all this, to the benefit of his own argument, Moore hugely over-estimates the kind of influence the BBC has over “ordinary people”. As a brilliant sociologist pointed out when Harold Wilson was trying to blame the then seemingly constant disputes in the docks on reds under the bed, “The dockers follow Jack Dash (a noted communist) with regard to industrial relations but Enoch Powell in respect of immigration” i.e. the British tend to make their own minds up.Indeed from my own observations about 50 years of the BBC’s no doubt well intentioned attempts to persuade the British that we are all the same under the skin seem to have had about as much success as did Jack Dash’s efforts in the same direction.

    Where I think the BBC radio and TV really scores is in high quality programmes dealing with current affairs and other matters of interest to the serious listener. No doubt to this, CM will reply “you can have those, but it simply isn’t fair that the BBC should be allowed to compete in areas of lighter entertainment where competitive commercial organisation could do better cheaper job”. Trouble is that, as those of us who have spent time in the USA well know, the next thing is for private interests to pressure the politicians into savagely cutting back on public service broadcasting funding to the degree that where I listen to it in Michigan, they have to pay a fee the BBC to deliver their news service.

    All in all, my message to Moore is that he and his pals touch the BBC at their peril as I for one would never vote for a party that attempted it. And as for why poor folk should be obliged to pay for a TV license, it’s for much the same reason as, through the Arts Council, they help fund the high arts: for the general good!

    • Gareth Stone

      Nice post, Ezra Pound would be proud

  • dalai guevara

    Oh look, the British legal system is yet again exposed for being an overpaid and abject failure when it comes to delivering a service on time and within budget. Has anyone been through a small claims process recently? What a farce!
    But what is the author’s solution to all this? The abolition the BBC?
    Charles, you are a cracker, yet Christmas is still a good five weeks away.

  • Patco

    Re:Capt Phillips.You conveniently circumvent the fact that some supposed “sea-law” prevented Capt Phillips..grizzeled..white-beard…glasses…50+…experienced old Sea Dog..straight from Disney central casting, was only able to try to spray water on those poor, destitute..what else can we do to survive..AK47 toting pirates..instead of shooting their boats out of the water and killing the bastards stone dead.
    But that wouldn’t have made a 12A film possible would It ?

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