Point of contention 

18 June 2009 tbs.pm/1068

Ben Bradshaw tells BBC: to save the licence fee, share it

It’s not surprising that the final Digital Britain report has provoked a wide range of reactions, and it was perhaps inevitable that the so-called “top slicing” of the TV licence fee would become prominent given the lack of available income from other sources combined with a lack of willingness to tax digital TV subscriptions for various reasons.

Exactly how much of Digital Britain will actually convert into real life changes remains to be seen, since (and very predictably) much of it is basically just theoretical musings based on some available evidence. And that 2015 analogue radio switchoff date is simply wishful thinking based on a short term desire to boost small sections of the economy.

The European Commission’s response to the contestable funding proposal – along with its actual implementation – will also determine its viability, plus there is always the risk that even if the proposal does reach the statute books there may be severe limitations as to what the available money can be used for in order to avoid infringing EU rules.

It seems fairly evident that the contents of Digital Britain have been structured around the short term problems that surround the media industry as it currently stands together with a lack of money available from the public purse, especially when combined with a restricted timescale before the next election that precludes extensive legislation.

This has inevitably downgraded public service broadcasting requirements both in terms of additional funds available and in respect of defending the status quo, leading predictably to a ‘top-sliced’ licence fee along with Channel 4 being more or less left to defend for itself.

From a historical perspective, regional news requirements were always a strong consideration in relation to awarding and revoking Channel 3 franchises, therefore maybe it isn’t too surprising that ITV’s recent regional news cutbacks combined with the future threat of total withdrawal from regional news has stung government into action of its own.

Unlike English regional television programming, regional news is still regarded as vitally important by politicians as a public service; at least important enough to make fundamental changes to the way the licence fee operates in order to preserve a two-way choice of regional news.

Regardless of who provides regional television news and who pays for it, all of this saga still leaves the question of what will now happen in relation to the BBC, what it produces, and how it justifies its use of the licence fee. That last part is especially pertinent given the occasionally hostile stance recently shown by government ministers towards the BBC.

The BBC’s problem is that it has already been subjected to much of the cutbacks that have resulted from an equivalent reduction in licence fee income that was caused by Mark Thompson’s desperate generous offer to help fund the digital TV switchover. And there have been no obvious service cutbacks, blank screens or broken web pages as a result.

Many BBC cutbacks appeared to have been purely of a superficial nature, and when combined with partly substantiated allegations that middle management has come out of this relatively unscathed, it’s not too hard to see that BBC management is now in a relatively weak position when it comes to defending the corporation.

So no obvious signs whatsoever to the casual viewer/listener that the BBC has a financial crisis apart from the publicised cutbacks relating to the salaries of its top stars, whilst at the same time there have been very visible amalgamations in relation to ITV’s regional news coverage and an ever-lengthening list of commercial local radio station closures.

None of this is the BBC’s fault either directly or indirectly, since if the BBC didn’t exist in the first place there would be a different set of complex circumstances facing the commercial sector at this point in time.

Another problem for the BBC when opposing the contestable funding plan is that there’s a fair amount of merit in the suggestion that sharing part of the licence fee will actually make the licence fee itself more tenable in future years; indeed at least some licence fee opponents have admitted that this will make their campaigning less effective as a result.

The BBC’s job should now be to thoroughly defend the amount of licence fee it has been given, since so far it appears to have made a lamentable job of doing such a thing (to put it mildly); indeed it was the BBC Trust that was first to publicly speak out against the Digital Britain proposals as opposed to BBC management.

Given that some form of contestable funding obtained from the licence fee seems almost inevitable, the BBC’s task should now be to ensure that such an amount is a fixed percentage which is ‘hard-coded’ and remains independent of future licence fee settlements as far as possible (which should solely concern the BBC’s requirements).

Such a fixed percentage would also reduce the incentive for anyone to tinker with the total licence fee settlement after one has been formally agreed, since if you reduce the total licence fee amount it would also cut back on the contestable portion as well. (If it is fixed, anyway.)

Plus there’s the issue of BBC Worldwide and the use of its profits for funding activities other than ones directly related to the BBC; in theory the BBC now ought to have a stronger case for retaining more of those profits as opposed to having nearly everything siphoned off in the direction of Channel 4.

A generally weakening sympathy towards Channel 4’s current “problems” will certainly help here, but will BBC Worldwide and BBC management be strong enough to stand up against any additional public service-related pressure in relation to any of this?

Plus there will be further questions relating to regional news provision on Channel 3, which will become even more pertinent if ITV (or whoever occupies the Channel 3 position in England and Wales after 2013) starts to make a healthy profit again; should regional news forever remain outside the remit of such a broadcaster?

ITV may be glad to have its regional news burden lifted from its shoulders, but there could be a sting in the tail in respect of the greater accountability that might result from divesting its regional responsibilities. All these issues and more await for the final implementation, although there are unfortunately many unresolved issues that are still very unclear.

Even at this stage.