Do you want Britain to have public service broadcasting? Yes or no? If your answer is no, you will doubtless want the plug to be pulled on the BBC, and that’s the end of it. If your answer is yes, you must concede that such broadcasting has to be paid for – if not by advertising then from some sort of levy, such as the licence fee or general taxation. And any service funded on compulsion is likely to grow a culture which leans to the left, because its employees have a vested interest in the kind of funding arrangement that pays their salaries.
This isn’t to say that Downing Street is wrong in wanting the BBC to opening its accounts to full inspection by the National Audit Office; publish a detailed breakdown of all expenditure above £500 (including salaries), and become fully open to Freedom of Information laws. As Peter Hoskin points out today, Grant Shapps has been sent out to this morning’s Sunday Telegraph to make precisely those points. Furthermore, the corporation’s current model of self-governance isn’t working: consider the BBC Trust’s handling of the severance payments scandal.
There is a very strong case for tearing up the arrangement and putting the BBC under OFCOM, which Conservative Ministers reportedly want to do. How it is governed and regulated could scarcely be more important, given the dominance of the BBC when it comes to news. 85 per cent of the public get their news from TV. And 65 per cent get that TV news from BBC One (see graph above). The picture of news consumption in Britain that the Guardian paints – of Rupert Murdoch being permanently on the verge of dominating the market – is false.
None the less, a problem blights the prospect of changing the BBC’s inspection regime or its openness to FOI – namely, that the Liberal Democrats would block any reform in this Parliament. This is doubtless why Shapps raises the review of the licence fee, which is due in 2016, after the next election. But it is most unlikely that there will be a majority Conservative Government after 2015. So if David Cameron is Prime Minister, he won’t have the power to force such change through the Commons (whether in coalition or out of it).
It’s therefore hard to see why the prospect of BBC reform has been raised now. Were it a vote-shifter with the electorate, the move would make strategic sense. But it isn’t. Perhaps Number 10 is being driven to distraction, like so many of the rest of us, by the BBC’s downplaying of the news that most people think the spending scaleback hasn’t damaged public services, or the glee with which it pounced on Ed Miliband’s attack on the Daily Mail, or…but there are a thousand examples: too many to detail now.
The chaos of its governing structures, the unsustainability of the licence fee, and the march of changing technology will bring radical reform sooner or later. But no Government other than a majority Conservative one will rush to introduce it, and that prospect looks rather distant at the moment. A decade or so from now, the BBC may be funded from taxation rather than the licence fee, be overseen by OFCOM rather than the Trust…and be smaller in consequence. But it is always likely to tilt leftwards – a bit, anyway. BBC bias is the price we pay for The Hollow Crown.