Andrew Allison is Campaign Manager for the Freedom Association.
The surprise announcement in this week’s reshuffle was the appointment of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary. John is a long-standing member of The Freedom Association’s Council, and of course we congratulate him on his appointment. And for the record, he won’t go out of his way to do us any favours just because he is one of our Council members. As Chairman of the Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, he was scrupulously fair and balanced, and I am sure he will continue in the same vein.
Fair and balanced isn’t a phrase you would use to describe the BBC’s coverage of the General Election, though. Far from it. If you had the misfortune to watch the corporation’s election night coverage, you would have seen a team of commentators (Andrew Neil and Nick Robinson being notable exceptions) watching in disbelief as the result was becoming clear.
It’s not just the bias though – since a results show should do what it says on the tin, and provide results as quickly as possible. Unsurprisingly, Sky News was ahead of the BBC all the way. We pay a mandatory licence fee to the BBC to provide high quality public service broadcasting. Instead, you could watch a far superior programme on Sky for nothing, although to watch it legally you still had to hand over your hard-earned cash to fund the inferior programme on another channel that you decided not to watch.
When the Culture, Media and Sport Committee published its report on The Future of the BBC, I was hardly complimentary about it. That was two and a half months ago, and I haven’t changed my mind. So although I know that John Whittingdale won’t do me or the Freedom Association’s ‘Axe the TV Tax’ campaign any special favours (and nor should he), here is what I would like him to do as Secretary of State.
One point that all MPs on the Culture, Media, and Sport Committee agreed on was that the BBC Trust is not fit for purpose and should be replaced. I agree – and fully expect that proposal to be swiftly implemented.
During our debate on the future of the BBC at last year’s Freedom Zone, John Whittingdale commented on how much had changed since the last charter was renewed. BBC iPlayer and other catch-up services were not around. Facebook was just arriving in the UK, and Twitter hadn’t been launched. YouTube was launched in February 2005 - just ten years ago. Technology is moving so rapidly that we cannot predict how we will be accessing media content in the future. To set in stone the BBC’s objectives, responsibilities, and model of funding for ten years is too long a period of time. The next Royal Charter should be renewed for five years.
During those five years, the BBC should be instructed to prepare for the abolition of the licence fee and to move to a subscription service. The technology is not available yet, but will be in a few years. To be fair to the BBC, you couldn’t cease one method of funding one day and then change it to something different the next. There would have to be a rollout across the country on an agreed timescale.
What constitutes public service broadcasting needs to be decided and a method of funding will have to be agreed. We have advocated that genuine public service broadcasting should be paid for out of general taxation. Personally, I think there is very little on BBC television that falls under that category. A quick look at the TV schedule for this morning proves this. Consider a recent BBC1 evening schedule:
The Housing Enforcers; Homes Under the Hammer; Don’t Get Done, Get Dom; Oxford Street Revealed; and Bargain Hunt.
Those programmes may be popular, but would hardly pass a public service test. They are essentially entertainment shows similar to those on other commercial channels. As far as BBC radio is concerned, the only channel that passes a public service test is Radio 4. All of the others, including some of Radio 3, offer something that is catered for by the private sector.
I am sure that John Whittingdale has been appointed to do a specific job. He is certainly up to the task, as he knows his brief inside out, which makes a refreshing change.
As long as the commitment is made to privatise the BBC and the timetable is agreed, I will be happy – as will the many millions of people who agree with us that the licence fee should go.