They want your money 

14 May 2008 tbs.pm/899

Andy Duncan ‘fed up’ by Channel 4 funding ‘squabble’

Hot on the heels of the BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons declaring that the BBC’s piggy bank wasn’t to be raided by media’s Uncle Tom Cobbley, 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.

But does Channel 4 deserve any licence fee money whatsoever especially given recent perceived missteps in its public credentials (Big Brother in particular), or perhaps there are other alternatives that are worth pursuing?

First things first, Channel 4 isn’t the channel it was even ten years ago, although it’s still arguable that the continuing presence of Channel 4 News along with the likes of Dispatches means that Channel 4 arguably has more pure public service content between 7 and 9pm on weekdays than any BBC television channel apart from BBC Four.

Of course that assumes that the definition of “pure public service content” are 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 Channel 4 could restore the level of public service credibility it had fifteen years ago if it had additional money remains to be seen, but more importantly whether such credibility is worth sacrificing part of the licence fee for (and would licence fee payers want such an ‘improvement’) is something that ought to be explored further.

Channel 4 does still have the advantage of being an established channel with an established public service remit – however recently weakened that remit may prove to be in reality – which is a massive bonus over any so-called “public service publisher” concept that would have to prove itself from scratch.

Therefore it was no surprise that Ofcom dropped its PSP idea faster than a hot potato when Channel 4 made a declaration to beef up its public credentials with its “Next on 4” proposal. (The PSP was supposedly only meant to be a point of discussion, so it was said after the event.)

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

However there is still a major question that seems to be publically sidestepped each time the issue of cross-funding public service content is raised, namely the issue of preventing private companies from having any unfair advantage from secondary funding, which is also the main reason why BSkyB is opposed to such a scheme.

Also there’s the need to properly consider the BBC’s future needs beyond that of the digital television switchover, 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 secondary compared to the ideological requirement for “public service competition” (read: additional private media sector funding), and this was notable with the use of the phrase “excess licence fee”.

An obsession with plurality should not cloud any basic judgement as to the workable outcome of a possible solution; eg. if another 10,000 shopping channels were to suddenly appear overnight, that doesn’t mean that the world really needs yet another public service broadcaster if the resources for such a broadcaster can’t be easily obtained.