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The Disraeli Room

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Can the BBC survive after 2022?

16th July 2015

Woes, like a biblical plague: the BBC’s continue to multiply. The image is not inapposite; Reith would have approved. Hard on the appointment of John Whittingdale, as culture secretary, not a Corporation supporter, comes news that the BBC will not get the exclusive rights to covering the Olympic Games, after 2022.

And that follows the remark by David Cameron, during the election campaign, that he was ‘going to close them down’. Off the cuff remarks by politicians might not be policy, but they might well reflect a strong feeling that, along with the other few remaining outposts of the ancien regime of the centralised state, the BBC is overdue for serious pruning.

It is all a very long way from John Reith’s vision of a colossus of culture, of course, when centralising was the sine qua non of success. Reith ensured the BBC was a monolithic centrally controlled dictatorship because he quickly found he could; it was part of the zeitgeist. It is little remembered now that the BBC began life as a series of local stations, run by small staffs up and down the country.

It ill behoved Reith’s avowed evangelical mission to bring education, information and entertainment (strictly in that order, and with entertainment a poor third) to the benighted British masses that he could not direct the efforts from his impregnable eyrie in London. Then, his engineers one day told him it was possible to run a national service, and the BBC firmly based in London was born.

It took many decades and the threat of commercial radio to get the BBC to even consider local output in any meaningful way, by bringing back local radio. It did it in a shambolic and cut-price way, simply to thwart commercial stations. Understanding the BBC’s corporate history is going to be important in the fierce debate now brewing, not just over the Licence Fee, but over the future of the BBC – whether indeed it has a future. In the end, though, it may come down to the future of the Licence Fee.

The Licence Fee, that weirdly British poll tax on the listener and viewer, was set up in the 1920s – so, almost a century ago – to ensure that the BBC had a solid income with which to carry out its Reithian mission. It is, in fact, not written in stone that the BBC has to have all, or indeed any of, the money the fee generates (read the small print on the back of yours). It is true that the BBC organises its collection (prudent, if you think about it, from the BBC’s point of view). It has also been very much in the BBC’s interest that we all believe it is for the BBC services that we are paying.

But no government in history has, or will, arrogate to another independent body the right to collect, and then disburse, taxes. So the Licence Fee is a Trojan Horse for the BBC; and, boy, does it know it. The problem has always been there. For example, it would have been completely in order for the government to disburse some of the Licence Fee to Channel Four when it was set up; it still is a legitimate idea. Equally, some of the Licence Fee today could be diverted to supporting the development of new platforms for broadcast output.

This latter point – using some of the Licence Fee for helping new modes of media – makes more and more sense at a time when increasing numbers of people can – and do – claim exemption from paying the Licence Fee, because they stream video from the internet, after it has been broadcast. The nonsense of the Licence Fee today is that it is only for live broadcasts. Think about your own use of video: how much do you record to watch later, or catch up on a computer or tablet screen, tomorrow, at the weekend, or next week?

The monolithic nature of the BBC – to this day – means that it has always believed it has to cover all bases, to be a leader in broadcast innovation. It the past (more than 50 years ago) it could do this. Broadcasting was, by its technological nature, massive and expensive to produce. Consumers were passive, in their homes every evening and, frankly, overwhelmingly docile.

It is demonstrable in each moment of our waking – and sleeping – lives that this is no longer true. The BBC struggles to keep up in a global media storm, basing its increasingly desperate efforts on the income it gets from a domestic poll tax, and from sales of programmes abroad.

Though I am a huge supporter, and a fierce defender, of the Licence Fee, the BBC needs to cut its cloth, severely, to meet the current state of affairs. To my mind, curiously, you might think, its core ‘mission’ is all four television stations, its national radio output and the BBC World Service (but that is still largely funded by the UK Foreign Office). It should definitely stop trying, as with Olympic Games coverage, to compete globally with the likes of Discovery and Sky.

By doing that, it is wasting not its money but yours and mine. And if the BBC does set such store by its audiences, and what they think, that audience, in this instance, should only include the (diminishing) band of domestic Licence Fee payers.

Tim Madge’s book on broadcasting and public accountability, Beyond the BBC, Macmillan, 1989 (still in print), deals at length with all the issues raised in this blog.

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