The BBC is the world's largest broadcaster, with a long list of sins. But now that its licence fee is being raided and its output attacked, we must defend this powerful, plural national institutionby John Lloyd / July 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
You can also read a specially extended version of Prospect’s exclusive interview with BBC director-general Mark Thompson for free on our website here
The BBC is caught in a series of contradictions that may prove fatal. The first of these, about which it worries most, concerns the licence fee. British citizens who have a television set must pay, on pain of fine or imprisonment, £142.50 a year—even if they never watch a BBC programme. From this, it gathered £3.4bn between 2007 and 2008. The profits on sales of programmes and other activities by BBC Worldwide give it a further £118m annually. This money funds the terrestrial BBC One and BBC Two channels, plus the digital channels BBC Three and BBC Four, BBC News, BBC Parliament and the children’s channels CBBC and CBeebies, as well as a vast and much visited website, five national radio stations and new digital additions like 5 Live Sports Extra, 1Xtra (black and soul music), BBC 7 (comedy) and the BBC Asian Network—as well as Radios Scotland, Wales and Ulster, and a network of local stations. It broadcasts to the world in some 33 languages, claims an audience of around 200m with a grant from the foreign office of £255m. It is the biggest broadcaster in the world. Though BBC executives could give master classes in British self-deprecation, modest it isn’t.
But for how much longer will all of this be possible? In mid June, the communications minister Stephen Carter published his “Digital Britain” report, calling for consultations on whether the BBC should give up £130m a year—3.5 per cent of the licence fee—to assist its struggling commercial rivals, so that they can continue to provide a competing news service. That sum of money will not break the corporation but it does seem to breach the adamantine wall that it has since 1922 held against any raid on its licence fee. Michael Lyons, the BBC’s chairman, sees the Carter proposals as the thin end of a wedge which will ultimately lead to a cash-strapped rump of a corporation. And if anything a new Tory government will be worse. In a wide-ranging recent interview with Prospect, BBC director-general Mark Thompson (see highlights, p57) said he thought that the Conservatives would be less likely to “top slice” the BBC licence fee than Labour. But that is only because they almost certainly favour lowering the licence fee, giving that slice of funding (and more) back to the taxpayer. In either case the BBC’s funding model seems in peril.