Julian Knight is MP for Solihull and a former BBC News personal finance and consumer affairs reporter.
It is not just most of the Parliamentary Labour Party that is in denial over the general election result. It is also, I believe, the BBC. The corporation had it all mapped out. A shaky coalition – preferably of the left – would limp along, both unable and unwilling to challenge Aunty over the next charter renewal.
A wish list was drawn up in W1A – including a crackdown on those viewing BBC content on digital devices and not paying a licence fee, retention of criminal sanctions against non-payers, and, finally a nice inflation busting rise in the licence fee. Forget ‘five more years’: seven years of feast was in the BBC’s sights. Then came the exit poll – and it wasn’t only Miliband’s dreams that were shattered, but those of many in the upper management of the corporation.
You may think reading that intro that this piece is an exercise in good old fashioned BBC-baiting. But this isn’t. Instead, this article is a simple reality check – an appeal to the corporation.
The election result may well be the best thing that has happened to the BBC, if it uses it as a means by which to examine itself, and its role within Britain and the wider world. The status quo can’t continue, because the BBC licence fee is unsustainable in the long term.
My wife and I grew up in the age of mass TV broadcast, but the number of times that we as a couple sit and actually watch the BBC live each month can be counted on the fingers of one hand. A mix of view on demand, netflix, portable devices, and Youtube dominate our weekly viewing and listening.
If we are like that – archetypal, and slightly fuddy-duddy when it comes to new technologies – then just imagine what the approach is of the younger generation. Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials with 20 million viewers: what could that vanished world possibly mean to them? For them, Aunty barely registers as a distant relative.
Against this backdrop, to continue to levy a poll tax on the population (particularly one which direct debit payers have to fork out six months in advance ) is both unjustifiable and unsustainable. And if BBC is going to move to the next stage of its development – beyond the period during which, boosted by its poll tax, it was able to move from a medium-sized national broadcaster to real global contender – it has to accept this inalienable truth.
The BBC should now come to the Government and the public with a plan to ween itself off the licence fee, and agree to goals and timetables to meet this end. It must embrace the change and own it (yes, I know I am starting to sound like Hugh Bonneville’s character in charge of BBC values from the BBC’s own sitcom, W1A).
Now the cry will go up that this is a recipe for slash-and-burn, the end of Radio Four or even – heaven forbid – Test Match Special. Not a bit of it. The corporation has some of the most incredibly talented people in any industry, and they should remain gainfully employed. But change now will head off a much more painful reckoning down the way.
So how to get there? Here are some proposals.
Identify parts of the business that can be made to work more successfully in the private sector.
Move new offerings to a subscription basis. (For example, for years the corporation has been working on a platform to allow access to its complete back catalogue. Great – but why not charge for it, with the promise that the money will be used to reduce the licence fee?)
Stop the land grab from the private sector unless it is a commercial enterprise from the beginning. The BBC News website should be a commercial enterprise, living or dying by the market rather than effectively killing off proto-regional news websites. Any new offering from the BBC should be done on a purely commercial basis.
In addition, the BBC has a clear management problem: too much of it of course, but also a huge pay inbalance between the individuals who actually do the work – those who, for example, occupy the positions of broadcast assistant, broadcast journalist and producers – and those who are paid handsomely to move people around the BBC or ‘blue sky think’. The pay differentials in the organisation are massive, and the organisation should show its seriousness about reform by not waiting for charter renewal to tackle this.
As for regionalism, the BBC should try and reconnect with localism, and use its deep talent pool to commercially drive forward its business. For too long, the BBC has looked at regional broadcast as something to be endured and which costs it money. What about instead looking at regionalism as means by which to strike out into the private sector – but from a position of equality rather than having the huge advantage of the Licence Fee behind it?
Instead, what the BBC does is suck the life out of the regions. It has effectively become a bi-polar organisation. London and Manchester dominate, but even these powerhouses are utterly devoid of character. What exactly was the purpose of moving thousands of staff to Salford from West London, and have them produce the same programming , just in a different studio?
I am campaigning along with other Conservative MPs to see a fairer deal for the Midlands, and have requested a Westminster Hall debate on the issue. But the bi-polar nature of the BBC isn’t just unfair – it is indicative of an organisation which is out of touch and still hopeful, I believe, of returning to the days of Greg Dyke-style largesse when money seemed to me no object. This will never happen and the BBC has to accept it now – or it will, more painfully, later.