Frozen asset 

19 October 2010 tbs.pm/1220

It’s true that the BBC has now managed to secure licence fee funding for another six years, but only the most pessimistic would have thought anything otherwise under the circumstances; the BBC is still a cherished institution to the majority of TV licence fee payers despite the odd grumble about the size of Jonathan Ross’s salary.

However this settlement has been achieved at a significant cost to the BBC, namely that the licence fee has now been frozen at £145.50 for those six years.

Think about it.

Until recently the BBC has been awarded modest licence fee increases that have largely been in line with inflation, but the recent licence fee freeze (supposedly done to show ‘solidarity’ with other government cutbacks even if there’s no rationale for an ‘independent’ BBC to follow suit) has now been extended beyond the term of this parliament.

So the BBC has evidently sacrificed those modest inflation-tagging increases for a perceived period of stability whether it wants to or not, and the very fact that the BBC is publicly showing signs of relief at this news seems to indicate all too well that this particular outcome was fully expected from a BBC management perspective.

Or perhaps that sigh of relief has instead something more to do with narrowly escaping that £556m bill for free TV licences for the over-75s – imagine the furore from certain newspapers if those free licences had actually been scrapped – instead the BBC now has to pay some or all of the World Service bill (up to £300m) and the Monitoring Service.

This is on top of supporting S4C financially (up to £102m/year) which is a new additional commitment, as well as existing expenditure such as broadband provision (£150m/year), £25m plus £25m/year for local TV/online content, plus not forgetting £100m+ for the continuing expansion of DAB digital radio transmitter coverage.

That’s a lot of money being spent at a time when the BBC’s income is being simultaneously reduced, and with the BBC perhaps being forced into a digital radio rollout for ideological reasons in order to meet a short term target that’s effectively unworkable, there are serious issues here as to what the BBC has exactly committed itself to.

Indeed there are three points of failure that ought to be considered in turn. Firstly there’s BBC management for not putting up its hand soon enough to say that all of this expenditure will inevitably put core BBC services at serious risk of jeopardy, even though they’re totally inept at judging what should be cut back – 6 Music being the prime example.

(Also the cost of covering the recent Chilean miners’ rescue operation has forced BBC News to cut back on reporting other important world events; heaven help them if there’s another major news story this side of Christmas.)

Secondly, the BBC Trust could and should have defended the BBC more than it has done, even if its role is more of a regulatory body as opposed to cheerleader. However the Trust is also meant to represent licence fee payers in general, whose interests won’t be at all well-served by a BBC that’s crippled by extensive cutbacks.

(Unless of course the Trust had been totally won over by management arguments as to the merits of their cause, despite all their recent mishaps in this department.)

And thirdly it has to be said that regardless of the political consequences of a licence fee increase and its fiscal impact, the Liberal Democrats should still hang their heads in shame, solely on the basis that a further minor compromise in the form of a modest licence fee increase could have been negogiated in order to give the BBC a bit more cash.

Unless of course they were unable to convince anyone else that the BBC was worth their time of day, and it has to be said that based on Mark Thompson’s recent abysmal track record it may also be possible to see that side of the argument even if you don’t agree with the underlying sentiment.

Anyway, despite all of the BBC’s recent (and perhaps mainly unintentional) attempts to alienate everyone outside (and inside) of the corporation, the BBC still does a hell of a lot that is well worth saving, and if you’re feeling sceptical at this point then it’s time to (re)visit that video made by Mitch Benn which puts things neatly in perspective.

Well worth £145.50 of anyone’s money.