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Keeping It Simple With Public Service

November 6, 2008

Keeping It Simple With Public Service

My heart sank at the urgency with which politicians of all parties demanded to have their say as the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand controversy went live. In truth shouldn’t this really have been a matter for the BBC governors?

Well, I am happy to confess that my initial instinct was wrong – the widespread public distaste at BBC Radio Two’s disastrous misjudgement to broadcast was heartfelt. Now that we can begin to look at these events with some sense of perspective, it is essential that UK public service broadcasting adapts to the challenges of the modern era.

At a time when the part-nationalisation of two of the four largest UK banks is accompanied by curbs on executive pay in the finance sector, few can complain that BBC pay should come under intense scrutiny. The disclosure that the Corporation’s Director General, Mark Thompson, is paid £816,000 annually has come as a shock to virtually everyone. The same goes for the ‘talent’. Yes, Conservatives support a free market; but if Messrs Ross and Brand – not to mention the other million pound a year BBC earners – can be paid more in the commercial sector (a proposition which I seriously doubt) then good luck to them. The truth is the very existence of the BBC is an impediment to the notion of a free market in UK broadcasting.

We need to look again at the funding of the BBC from an entirely different perspective. Economically these are dark days. The public demands value for money in both the public and private sector. In the past the BBC has cajoled parliament into granting inflation-busting licence fee settlements at every charter renewal. Its motto – like so much of the public sector under the Labour government – could readily be changed to “we’ve got the money, now let’s spend it.” The licence fee now stands at £139.50. This must stop.

Instead the Conservatives should support the setting of the level of the licence fee for the BBC and then allow the Corporation to cut its cloth accordingly. My view is that an overall level of below £100 is quite sufficient for an annual licence fee in the multimedia age. My recommendation is that the BBC should do far less, but concentrate on what it does best – and amidst the recent furore we should freely acknowledge that, at its best, the Corporation is rightly acclaimed. It needs to remember that its role as public service broadcaster is designed to be in sharp contrast to commercial stations. Accordingly the BBC should not feel under pressure to chase ratings and ought to step back from the production or broadcasting of low quality, populist material even if it produces revenue from overseas). There is plentiful such product already being broadcast on dozens of commercial channels.

As to its radio offering, the BBC might balance its books by closing its local radio network other than in areas that are not served by commercial channels. Where there is no local radio competition to the BBC, the Corporation should take the opportunity to find a private sector buyer. Radio One is an absurd anachronism in a modern age. It was first set up forty-one years ago in the era of pirate radio. Today it has nothing distinctive or new to add. Similarly Radio Two’s mission of recent years to become ‘edgy’ speaks more eloquently than I can about why it should no longer be funded by the public purse.

A frequent complaint from the owners of regional newspapers is the emergence of a BBC online offering which imposes a slow stranglehold on the notion of a diverse and independent local news offering. I accept that ITN’s financial constraints have played a key part in allowing this level of BBC domination but local news should ideally be left in independent hands. Only this week a parliamentary committee ruled that BBC Worldwide, the Corporation’s commercial arm, has run roughshod over commercial rivals by aggressively launching new titles without reference to competition law obligation.

These are just my suggestions. Ultimately it should be up to the BBC how it chooses to spend the money it demands from the viewing public. The public – enjoying an unprecedented choice of TV and radio options – should have some say over the amount it pays.

One last thing – there was a time, not so long ago, when the BBC sought to justify its privileged licence fee arrangement by reference to the quality of its programming. Nowadays the BBC presumes every householder on the electoral register is a TV owner and in its own television and billboard advertisements automatically makes financial demands with the thinly disguised menace of ‘it’s all in the database’. It is high time the Conservatives were on the side of a silent majority increasingly troubled by the arrogant presumption of this frequently unaccountable institution.