Rob Roberts is MP for Delyn.
Cut through all the sound and fury in the debate about the BBC, and it boils down to one straightforward question: what do we want it to be? Is it supposed to be a commercial entity, or not?
The current arrangement genuinely baffles me, and has done since long before I came an MP. Advocates of the Corporation constantly make the case for it being independent of the pressures that come from external funding. Yet despite that, time and again the BBC chooses to behave in a manner more befitting of a commercial broadcaster.
There is something amiss, for example, in the fact that according to the most recent figures there are more than 75 people on its payroll who earn more than the Prime Minister. I make no judgement about any individual case, but that number is surely very high for a public service broadcaster funded from our taxes.
Of course, I understand that big stars such as Graham Norton or Nick Grimshaw draw big crowds and secure good ratings. But why should the BBC be investing so much money in chasing these? Other broadcasters need those figures to sell advertising slots and product placement deals, but the BBC faces no such pressure.
This is the root of my confusion. You can have a publicly-funded organisation producing programming which is valuable but might not be commercially viable, or you can have a privately-funded one chasing the market with crowd-pleasers. But taxing people to support the production of shows which could perfectly well be made privately is very difficult to justify.
Worse, the fact that its income is insulated from normal commercial pressure understandably means that the BBC avoids the normal incentives its rivals have to cut costs, and the results can get a bit ridiculous.
For example, did you know that it spends over £3.1 million on the salaries of just six presenters for its football shows – including £1.75 million on Gary Linekar alone? Does anyone seriously believe that fewer people would tune in to programmes such as Match of the Day if the Corporation dropped the celebrity presenters? And even if they did, why would it matter? All these huge costs – not just on salaries but on production too – are sunk into shows which generate no revenue.
Put in this context, the BBC’s decision to scrap free TV licences for the over-75s looks not a little shameful.
In my constituency of Delyn in North Wales, 9.4 per cent of people are over 75 – that’s some 5,075 people, many of whom rely on their television as one of their few sources of connection with the wider world. Having to pay the licence fee would cause financial difficulty for people who have contributed to society for a lifetime, and who now look to the country for some comfort in the twilight of their years.
This is not to say that we can’t have a conversation about what balance to strike. I can definitely see a case for means-testing the free licence fee and asking whose who can afford to pay it to do so. But it isn’t as simple as it might seem, and we can’t just assume that the millions of people who need a free TV licence would be able to navigate such a system.
For example, according to the charity Independent Age there are currently 1.3 million pensioners who are not claiming pension credits despite being entitled to them. This perhaps shouldn’t surprise us – grappling with the government can be a daunting prospect even for the youngest and savviest of us.
But it poses a challenge to those who would move away from the universal free licence: how do you ensure that everyone who really needs one really gets one? How do you avoid the vicious cycle that emerges when the people most in need of help are least able to seek it out? Ministers must insist on convincing answers from the BBC before they even consider a means-tested model.
For its part, the BBC insists that it has public backing. Tony Hall, the Director General, made a fleeting reference to this in one paragraph near the end of his six-page statement in the Corporations’s 2018-19 Annual Report, where he says the decision to scrap free licences “followed a full and thorough consultation with the public…”
Yet according to the BBC’s own news report, this consultation asked 190,000 people (i.e. less than 0.3 per cent of the population), of whom “52 per cent of those consulted were in favour of reforming or abolishing free licenses”. The decision to cut an important benefit for 3.7 million older citizens was made on the basis of fewer than 100,000 people wanting to scrap free licences. Risible.
(That same article also offers up some strange numbers, specifically the BBC’s figure for the cost of maintaining free licences: £745 million. It’s hard to see how they reached that when the same article gives the 3.7 million figure for the number of recipients, and multiplying that by the cost of the fee (£154.50) comes to less than £572 million.)
For me, this comes down to what the BBC is supposed to be all about: public service. It can’t be right for what is supposed to be one of our great, unifying national institutions to risk cutting millions of older and vulnerable citizens off from its services – and by extension those of every other broadcaster too – whilst ploughing vast sums of money into replicating the work of commercial stations.
I hope that Hall and the rest of the BBC leadership will recognise the unwisdom of their decision and change course. And if they won’t, I hope that Parliament will be prepared to take swift and decisive action. Either the BBC is a public service which gets to everyone who needs it… or it’s just another broadcaster.