The latest mutation in the ongoing row over the future of the BBC is about the extent to which the Corporation is currently making content adequately supplied by commercial channels.
Today’s Daily Mail brings word of ministers criticising the BBC for producing ‘overly commercial’ programming. Writing in the Telegraph, Janet Daley claims that the Corporation is treating its most popular shows as political hostages, under threat unless the Government caves in.
On the other side Chris Bryant, the Shadow Culture Secretary, takes up his pen in the New Statesman to defend the practise of making publicly subsidised popular entertainment.
The essence of his case is that as the BBC takes money from everyone, it should produce something for everyone. As he writes:
“I passionately believe that a public sector broadcaster run with public money should make popular programmes; making the good popular and the popular good is a laudable aim, and I’ll be fighting for the BBC’s right to continue to do just that.”
The alternative, in his view, is that the Corporation becomes “posh TV at the public expense” – joining the ranks of the cultural ‘middle class rip-offs’ so cruelly satirised by Yes Minister all the way back in 1982.
This would in turn, in his view, undermine the case for having a universal licence fee at all.
What limits Bryant’s piece is that it treats some of the current pillars of the BBC – Lord Reith’s mission statement and the licence fee – as immutable points around which all else must flow.
Yet we ought to remember that the BBC was created in a completely different media environment to the one it exists in today.
When the BBC’s television wing was established, TVs were spreading but there wasn’t an industry producing programming. So the idea was simple: everyone with a TV chipped in to produce things to watch on it.
As the Shadow Culture Secretary points out, six in ten of those who helped to choose the three words of the BBC’s mission plumped for ‘entertain’. And why would we expect anything else, when entertainment television remains far and away the most popular today?
Yet the critical difference is that back when that poll was taken, there weren’t the multitude of alternatives that modern viewers enjoy.
This calls to a dilemma at the very heart of arts subsidies: subsidising things people will pay to watch is pointless; and subsidising things people won’t watch is hard to justify.
The solution may lie in one of the very horrors Bryant warned against: a fundamental change to the universal licence fee.
John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, has announced that the Corporation might move towards a mixed funding model, with a universal licence fee topped up by voluntary subscriptions to various arms of the BBC.
This could allow everyone to contribute to an uncontentious public service ‘core’ and then vote with their feet – and their wallets – on the rest by subscribing to packages from BBC Arts, BBC Entertainment, BBC Music, et al.
Packages could also draw elements from different divisions of the BBC in popular combinations.
These would then receive funding directly proportional to their support from BBC viewers – and have extra incentive to match commercial competitors.
As long as the content was good enough, the Corporation would continue to be what Bryant describes: an institution into which we all pay in, and whose content we all watch – and it would only remain so as long as it deserved to be.
But it would also benefit from the best aspect of the free market: BBC producers would be dependent for their bread not on those in power, but directly on the viewers they serve.