Securing the BBC’s future – in defence of the universal licence fee

On the defensive: the BBC’s director-general, Tony Hall. Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

The BBC is at the heart of British broadcasting’s delicate ecosystem. Owned and funded by the British public, it is committed to serving as a beacon of quality across all genres of British programming – raising audience expectations of programme quality and, consequently, driving up standards among its competitors too.

So proposals to change how the BBC operates, or, indeed, what its role should be, deserve close scrutiny. Some of the recent recommendations for the future of the BBC made by the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee could have alarming consequences. In my view, two are particularly serious, involving suggestions for replacing the licence fee and changing the BBC’s role as state broadcaster.

It is true that the annual £145.50 licence fee, payable by anybody who watches live television, is a cumbersome system for funding the corporation, not well liked by parts of the public nor by the BBC itself. But, as well as offering excellent value for money (a Sky subscription will cost at least £258 and probably much more, in addition to the licence fee), it has a number of real advantages.

The universal licence fee means everyone has the same stake in the BBC and that the corporation must serve everybody, regardless of wealth, taste or status. It also makes the BBC answerable to the public rather than just to politicians who would surely like to tame its independence at times.

A two-tier corporation

The report has made various proposals for change, including making some BBC services subscription only. This would make these BBC services responsive only to those willing to pay, creating a two-tier corporation, and could herald a move to an entirely subscription-funded BBC.

A subscription service would not only reduce the BBC’s reach, its revenue and, consequently, the quality of its programmes, but it would also undermine its mission altogether.

Rather than providing something for everyone, its revenue would be linked to the quantity of subscriptions. This would give it a quasi-commercial model, creating an incentive to chase large audiences and ignore altogether those audience fractions less likely to subscribe. What is the point of a public service broadcaster if it no longer operates for the benefit of the whole public?

Risk of politicisation

Another suggested option is for the licence fee to be replaced by a compulsory levy – essentially a hypothecated tax. This too could be disastrous. The present licence fee preserves the independence of the BBC – it collects its own revenue.

Direct tax-funding, however collected, could easily expose it much more severely to the whims of government, with the risk that the BBC could be perceived as serving the state rather than the public. State broadcasters elsewhere (such as Italy) tend to serve their political masters and sacrifice public trust as a result.

I would favour a much more imaginative solution, first proposed by John Ellis, to move the charging mechanism from live television to the BBC’s online catch-up services. This would follow the present trend in audience consumption and eliminate the present costly system for collecting licence fee payments.

Competing with commercial

Even more worrying is the suggestion that the BBC should retreat from areas that are well-served by commercial broadcasters. Superficially, this is an attractive argument – similar material would be provided anyway – and it is honey to the BBC’s commercial competitors who see the corporation as a cause of market failure.

But if the BBC is to be a universal broadcaster, reflecting and serving the whole public, it cannot restrict itself to minority interest programming that the market is less likely to provide. Being a beacon of quality applies as much to popular programming as to any other sort. The lesson from other parts of the world is that commercial operators tend to maintain audience share by providing risk-averse programming which simply copies already-successful models.

Bake off: delivering on quality and quantity. BBC/Love Productions/Tom Dymond

Certainly the BBC should be more innovative in its popular programming as this will drive up quality across the system to the benefit of all viewers. But avoiding popular programming would not only change and weaken the BBC’s purpose, but threaten its public support altogether.

The public rightly credits the BBC for popular programmes such as Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake-Off. These programmes make it much easier for the BBC to justify the funding and resources for the countless other services which are so valuable to much smaller segments of the audience.

Because of their quality, BBC shows are very popular with broadcasters around the world, making the British broadcasting industry a major global player and lucrative national exporter.

Sensible and measured

Despite these substantial concerns, overall the report is sensible and measured. Gratifyingly, it seems to grasp the value of much of what the BBC does and it has not, as might have been feared, been captured by some of the powerful commercial vested interests that gave evidence.

The criticisms the report makes of the BBC’s governance (weakness over the Jimmy Savile revelations, excessive salaries and payoffs, George Entwistle’s failure as Director-General and so on) are broadly warranted, including calling for the abolition of the BBC Trust and stronger Ofcom oversight. And, although some media coverage of the report seems to link governance failures to calls to reduce the BBC’s role and output, this erroneous link is not made by the committee.

Nonetheless, if adopted, there are recommendations here which could do untold damage to British broadcasting – so extreme care is needed. This report will not set policy for the BBC’s charter renewal in 2016 and, depending on the make-up of the next government, may be ignored altogether. But it has set the tone for lengthy debate on the future of the BBC. And once dangerous ideas are set running, they can often be difficult to recapture.