Yesterday 38 Degrees was forced to remove a petition calling for the resignation of Laura Kuenssberg as the BBC’s political editor following revelations that it was being used as a focal point for sexist abuse. Before then however, 38 Degrees and the wider clicktivist left had received criticism for undermining the BBC in its current mortal combat with the government and Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.
The focus of this ire is aimed at the BBC’s coverage of the resignation of Steven Doughty MP from the shadow cabinet, in which he was given the opportunity to resign live on-air. What’s fascinating about this particular issue is to question what any truly independent media agency would have done in the BBC and Kuenssberg’s shoes. The implication seems to be that she should have downplayed its significance and denied him a platform. If either of those things had happened, how would Kuenssberg have been able to defend it? I have my concerns about the nature of the BBC’s news coverage, which tends to lean towards giving members of the political establishment a relatively uncritical platform while undermining wider voices, but that tends to work as much in Labour’s favour as it does the Tories, and in this particular case it doesn’t apply at all.
But the purpose of this article is not to focus on Laura Kuenssberg’s woes but the relatively happier worlds of Telly Tubby Land and the Night Garden. While 38 Degrees were busily doing damage control on their Kuenssberg petition, they were also putting up another petition claiming that the government were proposing to cut funding for CBBC and CBeebies. An email was sent out titled “No more CBeebies?” which continued with:
But children’s TV as we know it is under threat. It’s being reported that the government plans to take money away from the BBC’s children’s programmes.  They want to give money-making channels a chance to compete for children’s shows.
Sounds horrifying, right? However, note the 1 in square brackets, as it’s pretty relevant. If you scroll down, you find that that  refers to an article in the Telegraph, which doesn’t quite say the same thing. That article is headlined “BBC in row with John Whittingdale over ‘top-slicing’ licence fee to fund kids’ TV“. It is indeed about top-slicing and the funding of commercial children’s television. Crucially however, nowhere does it say that the government is calling for funding of CBBC and CBeebies to be targeted for this top-slicing. To be clear: there is no reason whatsoever to believe that CBBC and CBeebies is under threat.
Now, you could give 38 Degrees the benefit of the doubt here. After all, that loss of BBC revenue has to come from somewhere, right? However, were you to reach this conclusion, I think you’d have to be blithely ignorant of a very important point: the chief target of Whittingdale’s concerns expressed in public thus far have all been the more profitable aspects of the BBC’s output. That comprises quite a bit of BBC TV – after all, they do have a very profitable worldwide arm. Sherlock, Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, Poldark, Radio One, sport, even news – these have all been cited not only as not worthy of government subsidy, but as actively undermining UK commercial television as a result. What is not under threat are the bits of the BBC that perform a clear public good but aren’t necessarily commercial, such as its output for children.
Believe it or not, Whittingdale is not stupid. He’s very aware that the BBC is extremely popular. Alongside the NHS, it’s one of those national institutions that the overwhelming majority of the British public want to preseve. Scrapping or privatising it could quite possibly lead to the ending of this government, and Whittingdale is not likely to put that at risk. That’s precisely why he is talking about restricting the profitable end of the BBC’s output, arguing with at least some justification that a lot of them would continue to get made if commissioned commercially and without the dead hand of the BBC hanging over Sky and ITV. And that’s precisely why he’s started talking up the possibility of taking a chunk of the license fee to pay for children’s television.
However well meaning, the 38 Degrees petition is a gift to Whittingdale. If his SpAds have any sense they will be jumping at the chance to get the message out to the 120,000 signatories that they will indeed protect CBBC from any cuts – or at least say that it will be up to the BBC to decide whether to keep Match of the Day or Peppa Pig. All he wants to do is increase spending on commercial children’s television. Anyone old enough to remember the quality of output of children’s television on ITV before the Tories destroyed that cherished national institution at the end of the 80s (or, ahem, watches some of the better shows the Cartoon Network in the US churns out) can tell you that commercial children’s TV has the potential to be every bit as good as what the BBC comes up with. More Press Gang and The Wind In The Willows in exchange for a bit less trash on BBC? What’s there to object to?
Of course the debate around top-slicing is a lot more nuanced and subtle than “SAVE THE TELLYTUBBIES!!11!” or even “SAVE SHERLOCK!” – which is precisely why Whittingdale wants to shift the debate in that direction. By giving Whittingdale such an open goal, 38 Degrees are only helping him. Fundamentally, this debate is just as much about the BBC’s independence as it is about its level of funding and with a Culture Secretary looking to actively undermine it, we need to be extra vigilant about what he decides to target. Having 38 Degrees chalk this one up as a “win” in a couple of weeks is only going to make that public scrutiny harder.
Sometimes I wonder if 38 Degrees and the myriad of other clicktivist websites have a secret agenda to actually undermine the left and progressive politics in the UK. The reality is much more banal: it exists simply to continue existing, and with that in mind will always look out for whatever simplistic and populist angle it can find on public policy and use it to increase its email database and thus revenue. I’ve spoken to enough people behind it, and experienced working up close with them enough to know that if that means they end up becoming reactionary or wildly missing their target, that’s a price they’re quite happy to pay.
That’s why they actively undermined the campaign against disability cuts during the last government, and that’s why they focused their “Save the NHS” campaign on big, high profile moments that they knew they had no chance of winning (such as their attempts to stop the second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill) at the expense of less high profile moments which required more sophisticated lobbying. Far better to fail big than to win quietly, and far better to help the government by over-simplifying a complex debate than to make their life difficult by adopting a more sophisticated position and risk losing subscribers in the process.