I notice people are whining about BBC “payoffs” again. This is pathetic. If the BBC is meant to be independent, that means politicians of all descriptions shouldn’t be able to threaten the people who work there with the sack. This can be achieved in two ways – either we take the politicians’ power over the BBC away, or we take the power of the sack away, by stuffing it with money.
The first option was the one chosen by Lord Reith when the BBC was created. It would of course be lovely if the BBC could hire the people it wants by offering civil service rates and a final salary pension. The problem, however, is that it didn’t work.
Historically the political class has always tried to bully the BBC, usually with the self-interested complicity of the press barons. They can’t give it up. The charter review process itself sticks the Chekhovian gun on the mantelpiece that will eventually get fired, rather like a BBC executive. As a result, if the BBC management has to rely on sticking it out for 38 years to get their money, the BBC won’t be in any way independent or interesting because anyone who is either of those things will get sacked or won’t join it in the first place.
It’s possible to square this circle if you have really strong political cover. The classic example is of course the civil service itself. But the BBC will never be as big or ugly a lobby as the civil service, and even the civil service gets bullied by politicians more often than it would like to admit. Actually it’s worse than that. Very often, the party trying to intimidate the BBC is the state, and it should be obvious that Downing Street cannot protect the BBC against Downing Street.
This leaves the second option. BBC people implicitly recognise that the political class can turn on them at any time, but in exchange for taking the career risk, the BBC implicitly promises them a lot of money if it happens. This means occasional, embarrassing payoffs, but it also means that a modicum of BBC independence is possible.
If politicians really are angry about “BBC payoffs”, they should leave the BBC alone, resist the temptation to get worked up about TV shows they didn’t bother to watch, stop micromanaging bits of its web site. They won’t do that, of course. They’re politicians and it is too big a megaphone for them to leave it alone. It’s almost as if…they don’t really want the BBC to be independent, and that’s why they whine about payoffs.
It’s certainly not the principle of rewards for (perceived) failure – as recently as 2010, MPs who lost their seats could get a year’s salary as a resettlement grant. More recently this has been cut back to a maximum of 6 months’ money, but ministers get 3 months of their ministerial salary on top of that and there’s up to £55,000 available for the costs of closing down your office.
It would be nicer, I agree, if we could go with option 1. But we’re just not that kind of society, and I’m not even sure if that’s a bad thing. We never were, either – back in the good old days, the BBC sent all its employees’ personal files to the police for vetting except for Jimmy Savile’s. If nobody ever tried to influence the BBC, would that mean its independence was so rock-solid there was no point, or that it had completely internalised what the politicians wanted?