The BBC could fall into Cameron’s trap

The BBC needs to take care not to sleepwalk into another disaster. Its top people are behaving as if has nothing has changed in the climate of public accountability in the last couple of weeks and that the recession is just a minor blip. It needs to think up – fast – a much cannier response than the positioning of its chairman in advance of a Conservative-sponsored Commons vote later today on a motion to freeze the licence fee. The parallels with the badly wounded House of Commons are all too evident. MPs of all parties may be looking for a bigger, juicier scapegoat than the Speaker for their own sins. Traditionally the BBC is all too prone to fall into traps set by politicians. Remember Hutton? Conservative media spokesman Jeremy Hunt’s case sounds moderate and sensible – (what’s wrong with the Tories these days?) – as he argues that it’s ” not appropriate for the BBC to take an inflationary rise in the licence fee at a time when prices are falling,” adding that “the corporation must be “responsive” to economic circumstances.” This argument easily takes priority over the BBC chairman’s puny claim that its independence might be under threat, and his underlying fears that it might have to share part of the licence fee with Channel 4. The BBC is aware that David Cameron cut his teeth as PR director for the now-defunct ITV company Carlton, and is much more media savvy than his predecessors. He knows where lots of bones are buried and has been homing in on the inflated size of top BBC salaries.

To have 50 people paid more than the Prime Minister is saying something.’

(Gordon Brown’s salary is £189,994. BBC director general Mark Thompson was paid £816,000 last year) My declaration of interest is very modest. The BBC pension fund relates only very indirectly to the licence fee and doesn’t affect my pension pot and yes, I’m just a bit jealous.

What the BBC needs to do – quickly – is to accept a freeze and cut the costs not only of notorious contracts like Jonathan Ross’s but those top executive salaries. They should begin by stop dragging their feet on top salaries disclosure. If they don’t shift position, Cameron in power would find a way to do it for them, ignoring their squeals about independence. Just twenty four hours after the MPs allowances crisis reached its climax, the BBC would be wise not to react like MPs in denial of the glaringly obvious – but hey, maybe today’s BBC still suffers from tin ear too.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London