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Posts Tagged ‘License Fee’

Boris and the BBC

In Home Affairs, The Media on May 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox –@polar_ii

Boris Johnson, now that he has safely returned to the Mayoralty, launched a devastating attack this morning on the BBC. Read it here. “It’s statist, defeatist, leftist,” splutters Johnson from the top of that red Curly Wurly in London, the ArcelorMittalOrbit (see picture).

Boris was more impressed with a giant red Curly Wurly than the BBC

Boris goes so far to suggest that a free-market loving, Eurosceptic Tory be given the reins. Well, aside from the fact that the BBC is already run by a Tory, Chris Patten, this won’t actually change anything. The BBC has a culture produced by its secure bastion of public funding, its privileged position in the media market and the sort of people that work for it.

You see, the BBC is run from the public purse by way of the license fee. The £145 or so everyone who has a TV pays to watch a TV. The BBC therefore has a guaranteed source of income. It also has editorial independence, so it can be as bold as it likes when it produces programmes. Where Boris sees impracticalities in the BBC Arts Editor’s response that the Curly Wurly ought to be ‘taller’ and ‘free’, the BBC clings to this noble ideal that tall things can really be both tall and free at the same time; that programmes can be state of the art and hard hitting while being ‘free’ for the taxpayer.

But of course, the BBC isn’t free. We all know that. We’ve even said that already. It costs everyone £145 per year to fund the BBC. That funding is ring-fenced. It’s a reassuringly large and certain stream of income, one that other competitors in the media market don’t have. Where everyone else has to rely on advertising revenue, which is awarded in proportion to viewing figures, the BBC can afford to produce niche programmes like See Hear that would never be viable in the big wide world of the market.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s really good that we have a public service broadcaster that produces programmes like See Hear. Programmes which inform and challenge and provide a genuine public service. But much of what the BBC does not provide a public service that the market does not already provide. Whilst I’m sure fans of both series will disagree vehemently, Eastenders and Coronation Street are pretty much the same thing. Sky News does pretty much what BBC News 24 does. Heart and BBC Radio 1 are pretty much indistinguishable.

This creates a problem. The stability of the BBC in the market makes it difficult for non-BBC competitors to break into the market. Take current affairs radio. BBC Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live have pretty much cornered that market. Iain Dale makes a valiant effort on LBC. But that doesn’t serve outside London. The status of programmes like Question Time (BBC 1), the Andrew Marr show (BBC 1) and Newsnight (BBC 2) (not to mention the Daily Politics, This Week &c) mean that anyone with any serious interest in public affairs is glued to various BBC outlets for much of their waking life. Tim Montgomerie has done more research than I can comfortably conceive to show that the BBC enjoys an effective monopoly on Radio, TV and online coverage. Put aside the argument that the BBC exhibits biases for one moment. If this sort of monopoly was held by a private sector news agency, even one that had neutrality written into its memoranda and articles, regulators would be profoundly unhappy with it.

Now, I don’t particularly want to wade into the debate about BBC bias. I think Boris is quite close to the truth when he says that the BBC’s public funding creates a culture which favours left-liberal ideas. Andrew Marr has further noted that, since the BBC hires a disproportionate number of LGBT people, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and young people, the ethos of the BBC will be unconsciously skewed towards left-liberal views. Jeff Randall, its former business editor has made similar remarks. As has Antony Jay (£), writer of Yes Minister. As has Rod Liddle, former editor of Radio 4’s Today Programme. As has Peter Sissons, former news anchor. People criticise the BBC for being too right-wing, such as MediaLens, though these voices are much quieter and by far in the minority. But the flow of criticism that the BBC is biased against centre-right views is sustained enough and vocal enough to have undermined trust in the Corporation.

But Boris’ solution is wrong. The solution is not to appoint a Tory. Firstly, because that’s already been attempted several times, and hasn’t got very far, but, more importantly, because it overtly politicises an institution that is, at worst, only subconsciously politicised, and ought to be neutral.

So here are three solutions. The first is to make the BBC subject to media regulators and competition law. The thought behind this is that the effective monopolies the BBC has on radio particularly, but to a lesser extent TV and online, are squeezing out other players in the market. The more players there are in this market, the broader the range of views and sources available; the more people will be able to vary their viewing. In a well-functioning market, competition also acts as a spur for all competitors to do better, improving the overall quality of, in this case, broadcasting.

Second, offer programmes which are a public service, but too niche to survive in the market, such as perhaps ‘See Hear’ or ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ to the wider market. If the BBC can make a programme for deaf people, so can Sky or C4. They might even be better at it. Contracts could be tendered for a year and sold to the broadcaster with the best proposals for using a designated funding grant from government. The government should also ensure that they go out on terrestrial channels (or when the digital switchover is complete, Freeview channels), since the public service element shouldn’t require additional payment above and beyond existing taxes.

Which leads me on to my third, most radical idea. Abolish the license fee and find the money by a rise in income tax. Why should we do this? Firstly, it is an effective tax cut of £145 for anyone who doesn’t earn enough to pay income tax; the very poorest in our society. Secondly, it removes the injustice of what is essentially a poll tax, paid with no regard to people’s income. Thirdly, some people make perfectly valid complaints about how they’re paying the license fee to watch ITV or C4 and never watch the BBC, yet still have to pay to fund the BBC. Why should access to ITV and C4 be contingent on paying for the BBC? Access to the BBC is certainly not contingent on paying for ITV. Either the license fee should be distributed around all the terrestrial channels, or there should be no license fee.

One other advantage of moving the BBC from the license fee to general taxation is that it will appear on the government’s wonderful new tax returns, which show where the tax is going and in what proportion. The BBC had a budget of £3bn last year. It’s trivial compared to welfare at just shy of £200bn. But allowing people to see how much the BBC costs them relative to say, healthcare or education might make them question if they really value it. It might make the people who want to see the BBC fully privatised decide that it’s really not that much money to pay for no adverts on TV, Radio and Online, with generally good content. It might even make the BBC staff realise that big and brilliant things can’t really be had for free.

So there’s the manifesto for the BBC. Competition and regulation, individual public service broadcast contracts and the abolition of the license fee. The BBC still has its funding and the independence to make brilliant programmes (above and beyond the programmes the government directly commissions). But this way, it’s fairer, clearer, and allows for much greater media plurality. Even Boris can’t be against that.