Julian Knight is MP for Solihull and has served for three years on the DCMS Select Committee.
We have been here before. In 2015, a Conservative general election victory was supposed to herald a new relationship with our national broadcaster.
The charter renewal process was an ideal opportunity to step back, take stock, and work with the Corporation to find a pathway to a modern, sustainable model for our national broadcaster – one which gradually phased out the unfair and outdated licence fee, made the BBC more responsive to the public, and opened up its budgets to external talent.
Our programme was supposed to be reforming, not wrecking – easing ‘Auntie’ off public subsidies and scaling its responsibilities to its resources.
But we lost our way. Despite excellent work by John Whittingdale, the then-Secretary of State, the Treasury under George Osborne chose a different path. They plumped for what seemed like a canny deal: the BBC would not be challenged to reform itself in response to a rapidly-transforming media landscape, so long as they picked up the tab for the over-75s licence fee.
We all know how that turned out: buckets of bad blood between the Government and the BBC over the licence fee money, and an unreformed Corporation which got tripped up by the EU referendum. At a time of polarised attitudes, the BBC failed to discharge its duty to make both sides feel fairly represented. Trust in the institution has declined to a point unprecedented in its long history.
I take no joy in this. Not only do I recognise the BBC’s crucial role in our national life, and as a former news reporter I have experienced first-hand some of the great work it does. But I do worry that if we once again back away from reform, the licence fee will come to be seen by increasing numbers of voters as an unjust tax – a modern version of Charles I’s Ship Money.
Moreover, at a time when the likes of Netflix can spend £18 billion a year on content – that’s spending on the scale of a chunky government department – the BBC is behind the curve. So much of its budget is eaten up the sheer scale of its responsibilities, and attendant personnel, that it struggles to compete against more specialised providers, let alone carve out its own niche in an ever-more competitive market.
Something needs to change – and Parliament can lead the way. I want the DCMS Select Committee to serve as a MP-led ‘royal commission’ on the future of the BBC.
As Conservatives we believe in evolution, not revolution, and as someone who had five blissful years working for BBC News I think I’ve had plenty of opportunity to get an insight into what’s required.
This doesn’t mean I’m misty-eyed about its problems. In 2016, exclusively for ConservativeHome, I joined over 70 colleagues to write to the Director General to warn him about the urgent need for the Corporation to copper-bottom its rules on impartiality as it reported on Brexit.
Unfortunately, our call fell on deaf ears, and the BBC has found itself out of step both with the 52 per cent who voted Leave and the millions more, like me, who did not but believe that the referendum result must be honoured. Instead it seemed to give a privileged voice to those calling for a second referendum, whilst shows such as the Today programme have dwindled to bywords for metropolitan elitism in modern Britain.
But the past, as they say, is another country. The general election has given us a second chance, and we must seize the opportunity created by our victory to help the BBC transition to a new model, one which retains that which makes it such a unique and beloved institution but weans it off the poll tax and fosters a culture which is more open to commercialism and accessible to outside talent.
We must make the BBC’s revenues more dependent on it actively catering to the diverse tastes of its many millions of users, and cultural change inside the Corporation will follow as night follows day. Many attacks aimed at it relate to its privileged position and taxpayer funding, as much as the content of its coverage.
So please, no too-clever-by-half deals this time. The next few months should see the start of a proper, root-and-branch review of the BBC to help it find a new model and a new role. Still special, but on a more level playing field.