Saturday, 23 May 2015

Time to take a fresh look at the way we pay for the BBC - my 22 May Catholic Universe column

I remember vividly planning for the birth of our first child. We were going to be the perfect parents.
He or she, knowing the gender was completely unacceptable, was going to be breast fed for his first few months before transitioning on to a purely organic diet. We would have a routine and he, or she, would take part in only stimulating, educational play and would sleep uninterrupted through the night. Most of all on the very few occasions he, or she, would be allowed to watch television they would definitely only be allowed to watch the BBC.
Of course when our son was born our very well meaning plans lasted for about five minutes, except for the BBC one.
For as long as I can remember I have been a huge fan of the British Broadcasting Corporation. I honestly believe that it is a shining jewel in the accomplishments of our nation right up there with the NHS.
You may well remember a sketch on the ground-breaking 1980’s comedy ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ in which a young Griff Rhys Jones plays a parody of Barry Took presenting his ‘Points of View’ show in which all of the correspondents advocate that the then £32.00 licence fee was ‘far too low’ and that one viewer would ‘willingly sell my house and all its contents to help the BBC’.
Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as placing my home on the market I can honestly say my own views have never been too far from those thirty year old fictions. For me at least the BBC is worth every single penny that I pay for my licence fee.
The BBC is responsible for world class news reporting and maintaining a regional radio and television presence in a nation where countless other local media outlets are disappearing. The BBC produces innovative and informative documentaries on nature, science, history, the arts and religion. Its variety and quality of output goes on and on and on and just when you think you have listed everything you realise you haven’t even scratched the surface. What about the BBC’s website which is consistently amongst the top 100 visited sites in the whole world? What about the wonderful iPlayer which allows us to catch up on programmes we have missed? What about the vast catalogue of classic comedy and drama which shaped most of our childhoods?
I could quite easily spend the whole of this column espousing the brilliance of the BBC and get nowhere close to doing it justice.
Perhaps one can go no further than quoting Aung San Suu Kyi who once said ‘When I was under house arrest, it was the BBC that spoke to me – I listened’.
You may well have judged from what I have written that there is a huge ‘but’ on the horizon, and indeed there is.
The BBC was formed in October 1922 under the watchful eye of John, later Lord, Reith and from its very earliest days had a clear aim which still nearly one hundred years later forms part of the organisations mission statement. The BBC’s job was to inform, educate and entertain.
In order to deliver on that aim a Royal Charter was issued in 1927 by George V which conferred upon the corporation authorisation to ‘receive all funds which may be granted annually or otherwise by the Legislature in furtherance of the purposes of this Our Charter’.
The payment of a 10 shilling ‘broadcast receiving’ licence followed with the television licence being introduced in 1946. To this day failure to pay the licence fee is still a criminal offence.
But the world has changed. The BBC once had a monopoly and its charter meant that it fulfilled its aims, for the most part, splendidly.
The corporation is still exemplary at informing and educating, but entertaining I’m not so sure. Have you ever seen Mrs Browns Boys?
Where once the BBC had the field to itself there is now a plethora of outstanding commercial broadcasters, using a variety of technological platforms, who are having to compete with their hands effectively tied behind their backs against the corporation’s inbuilt advantage of being paid for through taxation.
Last week the Prime Minister made MP John Whittingdale the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Mr Whittingdale, who has long been a critic of the BBC, said last year that the licence fee was ‘worse than poll tax’ and that it is ‘unsustainable’ in the long term.
Obviously as a Labour Party councillor I am almost programmed to disagree with a Tory Cabinet Minister but on this there is a serious point to consider.
I recently had a heated conversation with a friend about the how marvellous the BBC is. I went about making all the points I have made in this column and in the end he turned round to me and said ‘Leon, I agree the BBC has been great but I just don’t watch it. There is other stuff out there for me now’.
After a great deal of consideration I think my friend, and Mr Whittingdale, are probably right and that the current funding arrangements are not fit for purpose and certainly not equitable.
I very much hope that as the BBC goes through its ten yearly charter renewal process for 2017 a way is found to protect all of those non-commercial niche areas, like local radio and obscure arts documentaries, that the corporation is so good at. However the BBC must start to stand on its feet fairly against commercial broadcasters without the need to fall back on taxation and the potential criminalisation of people who don’t use the service.
This column isn’t just about the BBC though. It is about how we view our wider public services.
It is clear that all of the main political parties, to a greater or lesser extent, have subscribed to the concept of balancing the books and austerity. An important part of that concept has to be us asking ourselves what do we expect the government to provide for us?
Do we expect a state owned broadcaster? Do we expect our grass verges to be cut or our litter to be picked?
It is absolutely clear that as the public purse gets effectively smaller and government obligations to top priorities, such as social care for the elderly, get significantly bigger then we as a nation will have to decide what we can do without or look at other providers to fill the gap.
My friend said to me in a mature market he could choose to watch television with adverts, or he could pay to watch a subscription service. Why should he be forced to pay for something he didn’t ever use and probably never would?
As a lifelong advocate of the BBC I have to admit he has one hell of a point. We must start to think afresh and start to ask ourselves the difficult questions, not just about broadcasting.
All I know is that if Auntie does ever become a subscription service I will be at the front of the queue to sign up.

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