“We are having a consultation and we will whack it,” a scarcely-disguised Downing Street source has said of the licence fee. One would think from the reaction that Boris Johnson was about to spring change on a static BBC.
But the choice facing the corporation isn’t between change or no change, but between one kind of change or another. There is an eight week consultation into decriminalising the fee. The negotiations on its level which the source referred to begin later this year. The licence fee may not continue at all after 2027, when the current Charter period ends.
The background is straightforward. On the one hand, the BBC remains a dominant source of news, with 58 per cent of consumers using BBC one last year. On the other, that share is sliding over time. The year before last, it was 62 per cent.
This is mirrored by wider trends, including this arresting one: children in their early teens are more likely to recognise the YouTube and Netflix brands than the BBC.
“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,” Julian Knight wrote on this site recently.
But the question of the fee’s future is secondary. The primary one is: do we need public service broadcasting at all and, if we do, should the BBC be part of it?
In principle, our answer is an unhesitating Yes. We live amidst a babel of voices, and the BBC offers a common forum for them. It offers a means of drawing people of bewilderingly different views and backgrounds together.
The Queen’s Christmas Broadcast, the Armistice Anniversary, Gavin & Stacey, The Hollow Crown, Andrew Neil, Strictly Come Dancing, the F.A.Cup Final.
Not all of these come on the BBC alone, but they show the best of the corporation. However, a growing problem is whether the BBC at its best now outweighs in practice the BBC at its worst – or at its most common.
There is a twin problem. The first is bias. The second is duplication. Both challenge its Charter’s commitment to “impartial, high-quality and distinctive output”.
On news bias, the problem is not party political. It is, rather, political in a wider sense: the EU referendum’s aftermath has shown BBC news up as being too London-centric, too southern, too middle class, too Remainy, too University-educated – and, broadly speaking, too Woke.
To swoop from the general on the particular, this site identified one howler last week: the claim that Sinn Fein is not a populist party.
On wider bias, this worldview seeps, more pervasively, into comedy and drama. That said, the phenomenon reaches much wider than the corporation. Geoff Norcott is making a living out of being one of the very few identifiable right-of-centre comedians.
Interestingly, the BBC itself acknowledges the problem. Read Tony Hall’s New Year speech to its staff, and you will unearth what is almost a parody of the Government’s own preoccupations – getting out of London; gaining a global reach.
The diversity section of his talk has all the usual cliches: gender representation, BAME, people with disabilities. What about white working class non-graduates?
But hang on a moment. Is Hall really saying and doing anything that the Government itself is not doing, with its 50 per cent target for women Ministers in lower ranks? This website, come to think of it, is by and large white, male, middle-class and London-based.
Which may be a reminder that a mass of the BBC’s critics scarcely operate with Olympian detachment. They are commercial rivals – their own dog in the fight.
On duplication, that remarkly Dominic Cummings-style source has a point. Should the BBC really be providing services, at the point of a licence fee gun, that the commercial sector can provide – such as 61 radio stations?
At any rate, roll together declining audiences, the licence fee, duplication and what we read as bewilderment about what “impartiality” means in 2020…and the corporation has a big problem.
Knight, who we quoted earlier, is now Chairman of the DCMS Select Committee, and that article critical of the BBC was part of his campaigning platform for the post. Oliver Dowden is a mobile techocrat who meets Johnson’s ministerial selection criteria: loyal, competent, discreet.
John Whittingdale, who has come back to support the new Culture Secretary, has held the post himself and knows the subject backwards.
Ministers will be tempted to decriminalise the licence fee and watch a shortage of money bring the BBC to its senses. We read the corporation’s governance and management as being fearful, confused and struggling to keep up with the pace of technological and cultural change.
Watching them flounder and writhe is a bit like watching the scene in Spartacus where two fat patricians are forced to fight each other, gladiator-style.
So a strategy of less money alone is unlikely to work. The BBC’s governing powers would simply cut the wrong stuff. What might work better is to stick to first principles. We have always hankered after a review of the Charter and funding via the tax system.
For after all, a Royal Charter of any kind and commerical funding of any sort don’t sit easily together, since the link between what is paid for and what’s provided wouldn’t work.
And a poll tax-type system is a lot less fair than one based on ability to pay. That’s the principle we use to fund, say, schools and hospitals. Not everyone uses these, either. But the argument that tax funding would leave the BBC at the mercy of, say, a Corbyn-style government has force.
Through the mists that lead into the future, one can perhaps dimly perceive a big Charter overhaul, a lower but non-decriminalised licence fee, and much of what Number Ten wants.
Namely: fewer BBC TV stations, a reduced number of radio services, a scaled-back website, more spent on the World Service, a bigger presence for the Corporation outside London. In other words, less money plus the right reform – change that will leave a solid core of public service broadcasting with the BBC at its heart.
It could be that a revolt by Conservative backbenchers would stop Johnson, Cummings, or anyone else in Downing Street from “whacking” the BBC. But if the Corporation doesn’t embrace radical change, a bigger beast than government will force it: techological development and consumer habits.