This year marks the centenary of the BBC’s creation. How, one might ask, does Boris Johnson’s government intend to celebrate this occasion? On 16 January the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, provided the answer. “This licence fee announcement will be the last,” she peremptorily tweeted.
Ms Dorries did not propose an alternative funding model but such carelessness is typical of the mediocrities who sit in Mr Johnson’s cabinet. Ministers in it are seldom prized for their ability, seriousness or independent thought, but rather for their unquestioning loyalty… to Mr Johnson. As a consequence, government departments once headed by Rory Stewart, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Grieve and David Gauke (who laments the intellectual decline of the Conservatives on page 18) are now led by opportunists such as Ms Dorries (who until recently believed that Channel 4 received public money).
The timing of the announcement that the licence fee would be frozen for two years and could be abolished in the future was no accident. Mr Johnson is desperate to distract from the shambles of his Downing Street set-up. But as cynical as Ms Dorries’ intervention was, it serves no one to pretend that the BBC is beyond criticism or reform. Despite a 30 per cent cut to its public funding since 2010, the public service broadcaster remains bloated, with too many overpaid managers and presenters. Its commitment to impartiality has too often led to an embrace of “false equivalence”, with climate change deniers pitted against scientific experts. And its flagship TV news programmes – notably the 10pm bulletin on BBC One – have lost authority as they pursue an agenda of vox pops and excessive deference to the United States.
The charge most often levelled by conservative critics against the BBC is that it has a liberal, or even “left-wing” bias. This, one might note, has not prevented a succession of BBC executives – Robbie Gibb, Craig Oliver, Guto Harri, Will Walden – from serving recent Tory administrations. In reality, the BBC has an establishment bias: it is instinctively sympathetic to those who wield power. Rather than pursuing a genuinely independent approach, it too often follows a news agenda set by the right dominated press.
But these defects are arguments for improving the BBC, not for destroying it. Through its foreign affairs reporting, documentaries, sports and arts coverage and children’s TV, it upholds its founding mission to “inform, educate and entertain”. Start the Week and Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on Radio 4 are wonderful programmes. During the Covid-19 pandemic, as even the government was forced to recognise, the BBC has performed an invaluable service.
The purpose of the licence fee and the Royal Charter agreed each decade is to provide the BBC with independence from both the whims of the market and the government. It is easy to inveigh against the flat £159-a-year levy, but it is far harder to design a plausible alternative.
Turning the BBC into a Netflix-style subscription service, as many Conservative MPs propose, may be compatible with drama series such as Line of Duty but live television and radio news broadcasts cannot be paywalled. Those households who lack high-speed broadband (as far too many in the United Kingdom do) would be penalised.
Forcing the BBC to become an ad-funded service, as ITV and Channel 4 are, would leave it dependent on a precarious and shrinking source of revenue. Replacing the licence fee with direct government funding would make it more vulnerable to political manipulation and austere spending settlements.
In short, the licence fee may be the worst funding model apart from all the others. Ms Dorries protests that the levy is an unfair imposition on “families who are struggling to make ends meet”. But from a government that has just increased National Insurance by 1.25 percentage points and cut Universal Credit by £1,040 a year, this is darkly comic. For all its shortcomings, the BBC remains an institution of which the UK should be proud.
This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party