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Monday, January 17, 2022

Has the BBC become the government's latest dead cat?

Looking back over past blogposts it was actually twelve and a half years ago that the then-Labour Government published a report that suggested using income from the licence fee to support public service broadcasting on other channels, namely ITV. 

This was followed a few years later by a complete revamp of the way S4C was funded, effectively abolishing the direct grant from DCMS by bringing the Welsh language broadcaster under the auspices of the BBC, and making it reliant on licence fee funding.

Back in 2009, I asked was the licence fee still fit for purpose? Further questions were: 'Does the rise of digital inclusion, broadband and satellite TV stations outside of UK jurisdiction mean that it has become an obsolete way of funding public service TV? Should the licence fee be abolished altogether and the BBC funded by direct taxation instead?' 

Given what has happened in those twelve years with the rise of Amazon Prime, Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV, Britbox and goodness-knows how many more subscription services, these questions seem more relevant than ever.

It is not clear what exactly Nadine Dorries has in mind to replace the licence fee, but what seems certain is that she does not have the future of public service broadcasting at the forefront of her mind. 

Raising the abolition of the licence fee now, at a time when the government is in crisis and the Prime Minister's own position is under threat, creates the appearance of a very large dead cat being thrown on the table in an attempt to get us to focus on other issues.

What is more the stated rationale, that 'The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors are over' is less than honest. It was the Tory Government who abolished free TV licences for the over-75s in the first place, putting elderly people in this position.

This government, like many before it, has been very critical of the BBC's impartiality, continuing to seek ways to monitor and control the way the channel reports on political affairs. There have of course, been issues with the way management interprets impartiality, often pitching fringe figures against experts in an effort to put more than one side of the argument, when there is no justification for giving both points of view equal weight, but that is something that should be sorted out by the guidelines the BBC operates to. Instead, this latest move by the Secretary of State looks more and more like a vendetta.

The short term impact of Dorries' decision to freeze the licence fee for the next two years will be hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to BBC services. It is not yet clear what that will mean for S4C and Welsh language broadcasting, never mind other valuable services. And let us not forget that channels such as the BBC World Service actually complement UK Government foreign policy. I wonder how Ministers would react if the main cut was to abolish that service.

What is important now is that the debate that Dorries says she wants to initiate is not dominated by ideological considerations. A sustainable means of funding public service broadcasting has to be found that avoids lumping the BBC in with the Amazon Primes of this world, that preserves the principles and mission on which the BBC was founded and does not add substantially to the cost for the British public, including those pensioners Dorries says she is so concerned about.

Personally, I think direct government funding from taxation, although fairer, would be a wrong turn, leaving the corporation open to ministerial coercion, especially from this government, which is already set on limiting our traditional democratic freedoms. 

I was surprised on reading the Richard Crossman Diaries to find that Harold Wilson's first government was exploring allowing the BBC to supplement its income through advertising. That is one possible solution. Let's see what others emerge now.

Today we have a government dominated by self-serving populists. It is careless, incompetent and often patently dishonest. It has having discarded or marginalized most sensible and moderate people who were members of a once great political party. This clique has been found out. It is very difficult to fool all the people, even some of the time. Thrown off balance by a string of events and revelations, it has become so rattled that it is showing its true colours, by a move on the BBC.
We must thank God that these people are much less competent than the authorities in China and Russia. The plan is to start by starving the BBC of funding, giving time to work out a way of diluting and weakening its journalism.
Peter Black's piece is well thought out and very balanced, but this move on the BBC is more than a 'dead cat'. The Harmsworth and Murdock organizations have wanted to neuter the BBC for as long as I can remember. The unashamedly for-profit entertainment streamers want iPlayer to be an also-ran, not a benchmark.
The funding of public services such as health, transport and the BBC have always been at the mercy of arbitrary cuts. The government is going to trumpet the notion that the license fee is a regressive tax, not unlike the poll tax. The provision of information, entertainment and education (BBC mission statement) is a public service, as is health and social care. Public services should be universally available, with funding coming from those who can afford it. Civilized politics, from which the Tory party are rapidly excluding themselves, is about how to do this.

The beeb already has a streaming service called BRITBOXS. Over in the UK PBS (PUBLIC BROADCASTING SERVICE) America is paid by advertising I see nothing wrong with the BBC having advertisements.The revenue from advertising ,if done correctly, could reduce or get rid of licence fee for the elderly.(and the rest of us).A SENSIBLE debate can be had to resolve the problem NOT dead cat strategies to save Johnson and enrich Muedoch etc who would love for the BBC to disappear.
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