They want your money 

30 September 2010 tbs.pm/2200

Hot on the heels of BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons declaring that the Corporation’s piggy bank wasn’t to be raided by Uncle Tom Cobley an’ all, we have Channel 4’s Andy Duncan whipping out the begging bowl again for some incredibly hard-earned money in order to stop Channel 4 from going bust. Allegedly.

Does Channel 4 deserve any licence fee money, especially given recent perceived miss-steps in the channel’s public credentials – Big Brother in particular – or perhaps there are other alternatives that are worth pursuing?

Channel 4 isn’t the channel it was even ten years ago, although the continuing presence of Channel 4 News and Dispatches means that Channel 4 has more pure public service content between 7 and 9pm on weekdays than any BBC television channel other than from BBC Four.

That assumes the definition of ‘public service content’ is in things that a purely commercial channel wouldn’t ever touch but the fact that Channel 4 has managed to continue providing serious news and current affairs for so long without direct public funding does tend to weaken the channel’s case for money in one respect.

Whether the channel could restore the level of public service credibility it had fifteen years ago if it had additional money remains to be seen but more whether such credibility is worth sacrificing part of the licence fee for is something that ought to be explored further.

The channel does still have the advantage of being an established network with a public service remit – however weakened that may prove to be in reality – which is a massive bonus over any ‘public service publisher’ (PSP) concept that would have to prove itself from scratch.

It was no surprise that Ofcom dropped its ‘PSP’ idea faster than a hot potato when Channel 4 made a declaration of intent to beef up its public credentials with its ‘Next on 4’ proposal.

So do we as licence fee payers actually mind funding additional public service content for Channel 4? This is the very controversial question that will rear its head in the next few months although if politicians insist on wanting ‘plurality’ from licence fee money then it may end up being the only workable solution.

There is still a major question that seems to be sidestepped each time the issue of cross-funding public service content is raised. The EU, legislation driven issue of preventing private companies from having unfair advantage from secondary funding or public sources, one reason BSkyB is opposed to such a scheme.

There’s also the need to consider the BBC’s future needs beyond that of the digital television switch-over and if politicians are reluctant to increase the licence fee then the BBC will have to cut its services further unless any formerly top-sliced money was returned to them after 2012.

The major problem with getting Ofcom to come up with alternative public service solutions seems to be that the BBC’s needs tend to be seen as secondary when compared to the ideological requirement for ‘public service competition’ for which read ‘additional private media sector funding’. This was notable with the use of the phrase ‘excess licence fee’. There is of course no excess or spare money. This is ‘spin’ at it’s most naked and cynical. If the ideologues and proponents of such a scheme want to rob Peter to pay Paul, fair enough – they should just have the honesty to say so.

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