Andrew Allison is head of campaigns at The Freedom Association.
Two public consultations on the BBC have just closed. One, commissioned by the House of Lords Communications Committee, looked at the public purposes of the BBC, and the other, commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, was much more far ranging. John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, invited the public to give their views on things like the scale and scope of the BBC, the way it is governed, and the way it is funded. During his speech to the Conservative Party Conference last week, Whittingdale said that the consultation had received 80,000 responses, and now, on behalf of The Freedom Association, I have filed my submission.
I consulted widely with our members and supporters, and the full submission can be found here. For convenience, though, here is a breakdown of my recommendations:
The licence fee should be scrapped and replaced with a subscription model. There is no justification in the 21st Century for a compulsory levy that goes to fund one broadcaster. The Government should instruct the BBC that it needs to prepare for change, and also to report to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on how it is going to move from the licence fee to a subscription-based service. As soon as is practically possible, the licence fee should be scrapped. This could be done region by region to mitigate the impact on the corporation.
The non-payment of a television licence should be decriminalised. Having a County Court Judgment against your name seriously affects your ability to obtain credit. No sensible person who can afford to purchase a television licence would risk a CCJ, especially if they were looking to obtain a mortgage.
A funding pot to make public service content should be created and funded through general taxation. It is our view that all broadcasters should be able to bid for funding to make public service content and this funding pot should be financed through general taxation. To prevent politicians slicing money from this budget at will, the money made available for producing public service content should be protected in statute, with funding reviews at the start of each new parliament.
The next BBC Royal Charter should last for five years. Technology is moving at such a rapid rate that we don’t really know what the media landscape will be like in ten years’ time. We certainly couldn’t have predicted the current landscape ten years ago. Indeed, John Whittingdale has commented on this himself. For this reason, it would be wrong to award a Royal Charter to the BBC for ten years. This should be reviewed again in five years’ time.
The BBC Trust should be abolished. Even Rona Fairhead, the chairman of the BBC Trust, agrees with this, and said so when she was grilled by MPs in March of this year. As Ofcom wouldn’t touch the regulation of the BBC with a bargepole, in line with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s recommendation in its ‘Future of the BBC’ report published in February, new arrangements should be made for the governance, regulation and oversight of the BBC.
It would be great if the BBC agreed with the majority of the British public that the licence fee should go. However, it looks likely that the BBC will have to be weaned from the teat of the licence fee payer kicking and screaming. But that doesn’t mean that the Corporation will wither and die if it is funded by something other than a TV tax. One BBC journalist said to me recently that if the BBC had been privatised in the 1970s, it could have been as big as Google now. I’m not sure about that, but it certainly would have been a thriving multi-billion pound business operating across the world.
The BBC constantly says that at 40p a day, it is tremendous value for money. If it really believes that, it would move to a subscription based model in a heartbeat. That it does not simply proves how risk averse its management is.
What we are looking for from the Culture Secretary is a commitment to a direction of travel. Of course the BBC cannot move to subscription tomorrow, next month or next year, for that matter. This will take time, and as many tens of thousands of jobs rely on the BBC, it would be wrong to put them unnecessarily in jeopardy.
All that is required is the political will. I urge John Whittingdale to accept our reasonable proposals that can be implemented in a reasonable timescale agreed with the BBC.