For good or ill, the broadcast news agenda in this country is dominated by the public sector. Politicians, civil servants, academics, doctors, union bosses and other figures from the state and non-profit sector constitute the vast majority of voices one hears on the Today programme, Newsnight, Question Time and other current affairs shows.
These spokespeople tend to represent their class — the five million employed directly or indirectly by the state. Their views are inevitably shaped by the structures, politics and interests of the public sector, but they represent only 15% of the 33 million working people in the country. Most of us work in the private sector, yet we are too timid to share our perspectives, or are seen by broadcasters as uninteresting or irrelevant to viewers and listeners.
The BBC has towered over the dissemination of news for almost a century. It is part of the state machine and reflects first and foremost the concerns of the public sector. I’ve generally found that the BBC regards the private sector with a mixture of suspicion and ignorance. As Jeff Randall, its business editor from 2001 to 2005, once said: “The BBC treats business as if it is a criminal activity.”
This month, I stuck my head above the parapet and appeared on Question Time. The other four panellists were public sector: two MPs, an academic and a union leader. None of them was fearful about losing their job because of Covid-19 and the lockdown; none of them would lose a defined benefit, taxpayer-underwritten pension; none had a business at risk of going bust; none was seeing redundancies in their organisation, having to beg for a loan or negotiate with creditors to survive; that none was in rent arrears and worried about eviction; and that they could all do their jobs comfortably at home.
The usual suspects in the public sector cadres have controlled the airwaves more than ever during this dystopian time. The NHS, the ultimate state organisation, is front and centre of every discussion. Though the shutdown and social distancing have had catastrophic impacts on business and the private sector, there is virtual silence from business leaders.
After I went on TV, I had lots of online abuse, and even a few threats. I was seen as a greedy capitalist who didn’t care about lives, and put the economy ahead of people’s health. But the toll of the lockdown isn’t just lost production and massive debt: it is leading to a huge rise in unemployment, missed treatment for cancer and heart disease, suicide, mental illness and damaged education for children. A crippled private sector will not raise the tax to fund the £170bn annual cost of our precious NHS or pay for schools, pensions and the rest.
Hard-left elements on social media and elsewhere see this crisis as a great opportunity to expand the state. This crowds out the private sector, diminishes job creation and innovation, makes Britain a less attractive place in which to invest and lowers our standard of living. Yet entrepreneurs, and those who believe in markets, trade and the profit motive, seem paralysed and depressed.
The meek acceptance by industry of all the incoherent government diktats baffles me. Why are we instituting a two-week quarantine for travellers now? What is the scientific basis for the two-metre rule? Are we really going to keep all that massive inconvenience and cost in place while waiting for a vaccine, which may never arrive? The five tests for lifting the lockdown are vague and should be challenged.
I suspect many bosses are taking government handouts — furlough money, CBILS loans, rates holidays and other goodies — and don’t want to seem ungrateful or hypocritical. We are taking government money, too, in some of my companies. That doesn’t mean we must stay silent and avoid debate or criticism of ministers’ decisions. If Britain wants to remain a competitive and dynamic nation, business personalities — leaders, entrepreneurs, corporate bosses — must speak out on behalf of wealth creation and free markets. If we do not, then expect the worst — semi-permanent lockdown socialism.