Wither the BBC?

Andrew Rowland | 7 May 2022 | 0 comments

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has just published a white paper (a policy document) entitled Up Next, setting out minister Nadine Dorries’s vision for the future of broadcasting in this country. It covers such topics as the transition from broadcast to online delivery, the regulation of on-demand providers, local and regional broadcasting and the future of public service broadcasting (PSB). It was also confirmed that the government intends to sell off Channel 4. But what has generated most column inches was the simultaneous announcement that Dorries wants to scrap the TV licence from 2028 – the current BBC charter period ends on 31 December 2027.

The paper does not address what would replace the licence, though it could be anything from pure commercialisation (adverts) to subscription, or a mixture. Other suggestions include a levy on broadband services.

More immediately, though, the paper confirms that the fee of £159 per year (£13.25 pm), which took effect in April 2020, is to be frozen for a further two years and then rise only in line with inflation until the end of the charter period. With inflation running currently at 5.1% and forecast to rise to 10% by the end of the year, this is a permanent and damaging reduction in funding amounting to hundreds of millions. The BBC said, ‘Anything less than inflation would put unacceptable pressure on the BBC finances after years of cuts.’ [2]

In fact, she had announced via Twitter in January:

This licence fee announcement will be the last. The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors, are over. [3]

This argument, repeated in the paper with the additional nugget that 74% of people convicted of evasion were women, reveals a great deal. The government was urged to decriminalise non-payment but chose not to last year despite 100,000 responses to their consultation and the cogent argument presented in the paper. Scrapping the licence altogether is hardly the only (or right) solution for this unfairness. And the only reason that over-75s now have to buy a licence in the first place is because the government decided to stop funding it in 2016, forcing the BBC to fund it instead at the cost of £700M or 20% of licence revenue, which was unsustainable [4]. The paragraph reads:

The Government also remains concerned that the licence fee is enforced by criminal sanctions, which the Government sees as increasingly disproportionate and unfair in a modern public service broadcasting system. We are particularly concerned that, following the end of the free TV licence concession for over-75s, there is the potential for licence fee enforcement action to be taken against vulnerable elderly people. [Up Next page 17]

Crocodile tears over a situation the government deliberately created and expressly chose to prolong sticks in the throat. When a minister resorts to trash arguments like this, you can be sure there is a different agenda at work.

Indeed, Dorries has described the BBC as left-wing, elitist, snobbish, completely outdated and – like many government ministers of differing political persuasions – accused it of bias. So not a fan, then. While hardly the first politician to cry ‘fake news’ when criticised, you have to worry at her track record. In November 2021 she claimed that left-wing activists have ‘hijacked’ social media [5]. She called critics of her plan to sell Channel 4 a ‘leftie luvvie lynch mob’ [6]. Of course, activists of all sorts make use of social media, and only someone incapable of recognising opinions that differ from ones own as valid could claim otherwise. There is a certain irony in her assertion that

The BBC also needs to address issues around impartiality and groupthink, and to do so it needs to make material and swift progress on its 10-Point Impartiality and Editorial Standards Action Plan. [ibid p.15]

(When the government uses Orwellian words like groupthink, don’t red flags start waving in your mind too?) Similarly, after listing at length the myriad pressures and changes the industry is subjected to, most notably competition from the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple, the paper states:

The proposals set out in this white paper will support British broadcasters in meeting those challenges, ensuring the continued success of our mixed ecology, with public service broadcasters at the heart of our plans. [ibid p.14]

It is, however, silent on how cutting off the funding that allows our UK-based industry to create competitive and distinctive content will enable them to ‘take on competitors’. Up Next even points out that for high-end drama ‘the average spend per hour on purely domestic productions has remained well under £2 million per hour, while the budget for shows with international investment is now almost £6 million per hour’ which ‘risks making it harder for our domestic broadcasters to access the best facilities and attract the best … talent’ [p.12-13 quoting British Screen Forum High-end Television Drama Investment: An Update 2021], again without proposing a solution. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Dorries wants to weaken the BBC over the next five years and restrict its activities so much that, when the coup de grâce falls in 2028, it will have lost so many viewers that there is little protest. The BBC would need 24 million households to subscribe at £13 a month to support its current level of activity [7] or have to further reduce the services it offers and the programs it produces or commissions. I am sure the BBC will continue in some form no matter how it is funded, but whether it can survive as a flourishing and distinctively British broadcaster, and defend its journalism against political attacks from all sides, may be dependent on how robustly we the viewers, the public who own the Corporation, defend and support it.

The BBC’s director-general Tim Davie said in January that he does not feel it is ‘for one person to decide the funding model at the BBC’ [8]. I couldn’t agree more. The TV (originally radio) licence has sustained Britain’s foremost cultural and journalistic institution since 1923, allowing it to become respected worldwide for its independence, the quality of its output and willingness (and ability) to take risks commercial broadcasters would not. Replacing the licence, if it is done at all, is a complex and delicate task that if mishandled could fatally damage something that has been a hundred years in the making, and without which we would all be much the poorer. It should not be conducted in a spirit of revenge, partiality or inverted class snobbery.

4. The concession was withdrawn in 2020 except for over-75s receiving pension credit

© Andrew Rowland 2022

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