A high-profile figure departs stage left, and a much-loved British institution is plunged into chaos. I’m not talking about Harry and Meghan – indeed, I may now be the single last journalist in the country who hasn’t written a column about them – but about Tony Hall’s departure as Director General of the BBC.
Okay, I can hear the colossal collective yawn emanating through the ether at the prospect of reading an article about senior media appointments. Frankly, who cares which Islington-dwelling, opera-going media luvvie gets a squillion pound salary, as long as we get our daily dose of Pointless.
How about this then? The BBC is facing a very dangerous and uncertain future to the extent that, in less than a decade, it effectively could no longer exist.
During the election campaign, Boris Johnson was asked whether he would abolish the licence fee. “You have to ask yourself whether that kind of approach to funding a media organisation still makes sense in the long term, given the way other organisations manage to fund themselves… The system of funding out of a general tax bears reflection.”
The key here is his assertion that other organisations manage to fund themselves, and the implication that the burden for this shouldn’t fall upon the taxpayer.
Now, I know that the way the BBC is funded is something of a political hot potato. Actually, it’s not a hot potato, it’s a white hot, flaming rod of tungsten that incinerates everything it comes into contact with. The news that the licence fee exemption for the over 75s was being withdrawn was a body blow to hundreds of thousands of pensioners who depend upon the BBC for a degree of company, but are already struggling financially. God knows, people who have paid taxes and contributed to their nation in myriad ways for decades shouldn’t have to choose between the TV and heating.
And yet, by the same token, it seems absurd that someone like my mother, who lives in no small degree of comfort in Central London and mostly dines on swan roulade in a truffle-and-melted-diamond jus should be exempt, while a young family struggling to make ends meet has to subsidise her.
Avoid the TV licence scam
If you fund the BBC using income tax, you immediately dispense with the regressive and unfair nature of the licence fee. All of the poorest pensioners will be exempt, and the next tier up will only pay a small amount. It is only as you climb the wealth ladder that payments will go up. You would also right the grotesque anomaly of non-payment being a criminal offence, which has clogged up the criminal courts and seen far too many decent people ending up with a criminal record, or even a jail sentence.
But why not make the BBC pay for itself, as Johnson and many other politicians, both of the left and right, seem to suggest? Wouldn’t it be great to have a BBC that was free? Why on earth should we all pay for something that not all of us use? Okay, so with a self-funding we’d have to watch adverts. That’s not such a big deal (unless you’re my mum, who goes into an almost cataclysmic rage every time an ad break comes on. Seriously, Ming vases are flying across the room, footmen are ducking, van Goghs are being damaged, it’s a nightmare…) Or it could be a subscription-only service, like Netflix and Amazon.
The problem with either model is that the broadcaster inevitably becomes driven by nothing other than market forces. Profit is everything. The more popular the show, the higher the audience, the more subscriptions you sell, or the more you can charge for your advertising. Slowly, inevitably, the less-profitable shows die. It’s the equivalent of privatised railway shutting down the branch line, or a cottage hospital closing because of funding cuts.
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“So what?” you might say. “If these programmes aren’t getting a big audience, they don’t deserve to survive.” Okay then. Goodbye to local radio, including local news and sports coverage. Goodbye local TV. Goodbye a lot of world class children’s TV. Goodbye risk-taking programmes, and schemes to advance young, up-and-coming talents. Goodbye an awful lot of documentaries and current affairs coverage. You would, essentially, be turning the BBC, one of the world’s most respected media organisations and a nationally-owned public sector broadcaster, into just another entertainment channel among a plethora of others. ITV is brilliant at what it does, but we don’t need another one.
The BBC, we are told, is not fit for purpose. Just for reference, here’s what you get for your £154.50: BBC One, Two, Four, News, Parliament, Alba, CBBC, CBeebies, six regional stations, 11 national radio stations, nine regional radio stations, 40 local radio stations, iPlayer, BBC News website, BBC Sport website, podcasts, natural history programmes that are the envy of the world, top class drama, inventive comedy, authoritative, impartial, fact-checked news, documentaries and current affairs you would never see on a commercial channel, and a vast portfolio of sports, arts, music and entertainment programmes.
Is the free TV licence for over 75s about to be scrapped?
Don’t get me wrong, I love Netflix and Amazon Prime. I mean, really love them. I have essentially ceased indulging in time-wasting exercises like socialising, shopping, or washing. Food must take no longer to prepare than an opening credits sequence. You’d be surprised how long a man can survive on Frazzles. But man cannot live on drama and comedy and wheat-based bacon snacks alone. Sure, the big streaming providers do documentaries, and they can be very good, but they tend to be pretty sensationalist, and almost all of them have ‘murder’ in the title, or are about a big sports team. And I don’t want to get my news fix from a US-based multinational corporation with its own political agenda and no responsibility towards impartiality.
I can hear billions of eyes rolling at the idea of BBC news being impartial. Billions? Okay, maybe I’m slightly over-estimating my readership. But it’s fair to say that the BBC has become something of a punchbag for both sides of the political divide in recent years. It seems you can’t win at the Beeb. Depending on your echo chamber, it’s either the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation or the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation. During the election, there were howls of dismay at its pro-Tory coverage, only for it to emerge that, actually, the majority of complainants writing in were suggesting it was a lefty cabal of anti-Borisers.
Certainly, the feeling among the government is that the BBC is an unfriendly entity. Following on from Johnson’s reluctance to submit himself to the ritual disembowelling that is an Andrew Neil interview, there now seems to be a de facto boycott of the Today programme by government ministers. The PM, however, did recently agree to be interviewed by Dan Walker on BBC Breakfast, in an exchange that could only have been more relaxing for the big fella if Walker had put on some whale music and given him a back rub.
The unwillingness of politicians to submit themselves to rigorous cross-examination by the best journalists in the business is bad for democracy, no matter which party is in power. But what would be considerably worse for democracy would be for us to effectively lose a strong, independent news organisation that is not answerable to the whims of the government, or to the political caprices of shareholders. If you want to be getting your information from the UK’s equivalent of Fox News, or the leftist version thereof, go for it, but don’t be surprised when democracy suffers as a result.
The argument goes that in this digital era of streaming services and social media, where entertainment and news can both be accessed instantly on any number of platforms, there is no place for an ageing, expensive, unwieldy behemoth like the BBC. I would say, with all of my heart, the absolute opposite. In an era where news and political coverage can be gleaned from anywhere, without any admission of bias or checking of facts, having a powerful, independent and reliable public service broadcaster to hold power to account has never been more important. The first job of the new Director General will be to ensure that they’re not presiding over the effective demise of an institution that we are only really able to calculate the value of when it is gone.