Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.
We have clearly entered another season of BBC-bashing, and this one seems particularly ill-timed. If we are going to make a reality of Global Britain we need to capitalise on the things about our country that the world likes and admires. However unpalatable it may be to some Conservatives, the BBC is high on that list.
If Conservatives are to be held as a truly One Nation party, an essential part of that is a belief in the enduring value of Britain’s national institutions. The BBC is unquestionably a cherished one of those, as the Prime Minister rightly said last week. It is so uniquely British that it helps define our national character, and shape our shared national identity. It remains the place that brings the country together for everything from the Olympics, Remembrance Sunday and election nights, to Gavin and Stacey, Line of Duty and Planet Earth.
Of course from time to time, (well, perhaps a bit more often than that…) as Conservatives we all shout from our sofas at the inevitably left-wing comedian on the Question Time panel. But when you consider BBC news in the round, it provides the backbone of broadcast reporting in our thankfully robust political culture. That’s an essential part of a democracy. And we should remember that, for all the debate swirling around Westminster, the BBC is still the news source that the country uses and trusts the most.
During the last week, the Government has indicated that they will review the licence fee, since the funding mechanism for the BBC Charter is next up for renewal in 2027. That’s sensible, and what a Charter Review every ten years or so is there for.
I declare an interest as someone who has worked on BBC Charters both in Number Ten and briefly for the BBC. From about the late 1970s, every Charter has been seen as the “last one for the licence fee”. So I wait with baited breath for the alternative funding mechanism to emerge, and find widespread public support, that can deliver a universal service offering iPlayer, Sounds, nine national TV Channels, including Cbeebies and CBBC, BBC Radio, BBC Local Radio (quick plug here for BBC Radio Kent), Regional TV and most of the World Service, independent of Government for the same price of around 40p a day.
I think comparisons with Netflix don’t really stand up to much scrutiny. It is not trying to be, nor would I think they want to be, a universally available public service broadcaster – though it’s worth noting that Netflix themselves say that the BBC’s iPlayer blazed the trail in terms of on-demand viewing in the UK. More importantly, it may be the case today that Netflix is investing in some UK content, but there is no guarantee that this will continue. And no evidence that they would ever want to replace the role the BBC plays in backing British ideas and talent; a role that does so much to support the UK’s creative and cultural strength worldwide.
But, as the Government has said, all this is for the future. At the moment, as Nigel Adams said in the House, we are looking at the very narrow issue of the decriminalisation of the licence fee.
There were a few claims about this in Harry Phibb’s piece on this site yesterday that warrant further scrutiny. For a start, the number of TV licences has not been falling by ‘a million a year’ – there are still over 21 million paid-for licence households.
Neither is the TV set being consigned to history – we may view things on it differently but the number of homes with a TV set has actually gone up over the last five years, and the biggest proportion of those are watching TV via an aerial.
Which leads me to the final point here, which is: as a very high percentage of TV viewing is through this route – and likely to be so for many years to come – if someone is not paying their fair share through the licence fee, there is no way, unlike with other utilities or services, of turning off the service.
There are a few other myths that have been doing the rounds among some of my colleagues , but the one that caught my eye was the idea that TV licence prosecutions were in some way‘ clogging up the courts’.
Thanks in part to reforms we as a Government brought forward in the last Parliament, the amount of court time taken up is only about 0.3 per cent. Indeed, the Magistrates Association has said in terms of court time saved “it would be an insignificant difference. We would hardly notice it”. And then if you went down a civil route, the system would be less efficient, probably lead to higher and less affordable fines, and more people having CCJs on their credit records.
You can find the BBC at times enraging, arrogant and extravagant. But a weaker BBC would mean a weaker British culture – and no Conservative can seriously want that.