Lord Bates of Langbaurgh was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Langbaurgh 1992-7, and Paymaster General 1996-7. He will introduce his BBC Trust Chairman (Election) Bill into the House of Lords today.
The BBC Trust describes itself as “the guardian of the licence payer and the public interest of the BBC,” but how are they accountable to the people they serve? The BBC has immense influence on the opinions and values of the nation. How do we ensure that this power in our society is not simply a closed shop for a metropolitan, liberal elite to advance their agenda and air their prejudice all at the tax payers expense?
In 2011, 24.75 million households paid £145.50 each in a compulsory levy to fund £3.6 billion of the £5.01 billion budget of the BBC. The largest contributor to the licence fee is the Government who paid £589 million in 2011 for granting free licences for the over-75s.
The licence fee is rigorously enforced, with licence fee evasion cases making up around one tenth of all cases prosecuted in magistrate courts.
With 23,000 staff the BBC is the largest broadcaster in the world in terms of employees. Who is ensuring that the hard pressed licence payer is getting value for money and not funding a self-serving bureaucracy?
When decisions are taken to increase the budget for 5 Sports Extra and Cbeebies by 8% but to cut funding to the BBC Local Radio and the BBC News Channel, who is accountable to the licence fee payer?
The Charter of the BBC states that its duty is to “Inform, Educate and Entertain”. The duty of the public service broadcaster is to offer distinctive programming which is in the public interest but may not be able to be justified entirely commercially. Yet its top viewed programmes on BBC 1 for the last week were: Strictly Come Dancing (twice), Eastenders (three times). ITV’s top viewed programmes were: Downton Abbey, Coronation Street (three times) and the X Factor. Both BBC and ITV's top viewed programmes, Strictly and Downton Abbey, attracted over 10 million viewers. We pay for the BBC but ITV is free.
Whatever happened to “No taxation without representation”?
The time may well have come for the gush of fresh air of democracy to clear through the stale atmosphere of Broadcasting House. A time to prove that the BBC really does serve the license payer and not just itself. It is time for the 24.75 million of us who pay for the BBC to be given a vote, and not just for who goes through to the next round of Strictly Come Dancing.
P.S. I am sure that in the post-Leveson culture, where the Government are rightly seeking to uphold the freedom of the press, they would wish to be consistent and relinquish their role in appointing the Chair of the BBC in favour of those who pay for it.