Peter Heaton-Jones is the newly-elected MP for North Devon and a former broadcast journalist.
I spent 20 years inside the BBC. As they say, you get less for murder. To be fair, there was time off for good behaviour. Joining in 1986 and leaving for the last time in 2006, my two decades included several stints outside Aunty’s warm embrace. But the long stretch has provided an insight into the Corporation’s DNA. It’s a complex place. Vast, unwieldy and maddening at times, it’s still the best broadcaster in the world.
Now in the House of Commons, I find myself pondering the BBC’s very future. That sounds portentous, but the Corporation really is at a crossroads. Charter renewal is just the beginning. There are also fundamental questions about the role of the BBC in a media landscape which is changing by the day. The Reithian founding fathers could never have envisaged the shape and scope of today’s Corporation or the world in which it exists. The problem is, it’s still funded in broadly the same way it has been for the last 80 years.
My friend and colleague Julian Knight MP admirably tackled this conundrum on Conservative Home yesterday. It was a valuable contribution to the debate. But I find myself struggling with some of the propositions.
I’m not convinced that the Corporation was praying for a left-of-centre government as a guarantee of a big, fat licence fee settlement. The Beeb’s senior management – and politicians of all colours – surely know that that ship has sailed.
Whoever won the election, there was always going to be a crunchy debate about the future funding of the BBC. Why? Because the millions of households who pay the licence fee simply wouldn’t let the Ministers in Whitehall and mandarins in W1A get away with stitching up a cosy deal. They know the current funding arrangements of the BBC are increasingly anachronistic in today’s multi-platform, multi-media environment. They know it because they are part of it.
My twenty-something researcher told me yesterday he hasn’t watched anything ‘on the television’ since he was a kid. It’s all Netflix, iPads and mobile devices. And his parents never watch anything live any more. ‘On demand’ is the fastest-growing phenomenon in what used to be called ‘broadcasting’. An entire TV channel, BBC Three, soon won’t be ‘broadcasting’ at all.
All of which raises huge questions about the licence fee. Or more accurately, the rules around who should pay it and what exactly they’re paying for. With fewer people actually owning a ‘device capable of receiving a TV signal’, the credibility of the licencing regime starts to look thinner than the plotlines on Casualty.
But the answer, I suggest, is not to ditch the licence fee. Forgive me for coming over all non-Conservative, but I support the licence fee as the primary source of funding for the BBC. Our public broadcaster needs to be publicly-funded, and the licence fee is the only credible model. During one of my periods of parole, I worked for Aunty’s antipodean cousin: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Smaller than the BBC and producing a fraction of the output, it nonetheless is modelled on our national broadcaster and aspires to the same status. But its funding is a total Horlicks. There’s no licence fee. Instead, taxpayers’ money is granted to the ABC at the whim of whichever political party holds the purse strings at the time. Editorial independence, anyone?
The options of the BBC accepting advertising or introducing subscription services have been around since I first set foot in a local radio newsroom nearly thirty years ago. Why couldn’t, say, Radio One become a commercial entity? Or viewers voluntarily subscribe to BBC Four? Well, because what’s left of the BBC as a publicly-funded broadcaster would lose the critical mass necessary to produce programmes of the quality the audiences demand. Plus, the rump of the licence fee would become even more impossible to justify and enforce than now. Would we have to measure how much of the BBC’s non-commercial output is consumed by each household to calculate how much fee they should pay?
Where I absolutely agree with Julian is on the question of the BBC’s management. There is far too much of it. Too many people are paid huge salaries but do very little actual, you know, making of programmes. This isn’t a Daily Mail rant. There are many extraordinarily talented, inspirational, hard-working senior managers in the BBC. I worked with many of them who have now risen, deservedly, to the upper echelons. But there are also many people earning six figures who could leave their jobs tomorrow without having any negative impact on the Corporation’s output.
And it’s the output that matters. Forget the platforms, it’s the programmes, stupid. The BBC quite simply makes the best radio and TV programmes in the world. But it’s only able to do so because of the unique way it’s funded. And as soon as you start trying to dismantle that, even partially, the dominoes begin to fall.
The answer to the future funding of the BBC is not to scrap the licence fee, it’s to make sure the licence fee works in today’s media environment. The small print needs to be rewritten so that everyone who consumes any BBC product in any form shares the responsibility for paying for it, and understands and accepts the need to do so. And the BBC needs to spend its money better. Fewer managers, less empire-building and more focus on pounds going to programmes. The Corporation needs slimming down, but can do that without diminishing what comes out of our TVs, radios or computers.
As a former long-term BBC inmate, maybe this is Stockholm Syndrome kicking in. But I think the Corporation needs to be protected and valued. It’s all too easy to deride the licence fee as a poll tax, but all the alternatives carry a huge danger of significantly diminishing the quality we expect from the BBC. You may wish the licence fee would go away, but be careful what you wish for.