David Herdson says “Set the BBC free and let it flourish”

David Herdson says “Set the BBC free and let it flourish”


We wouldn’t debate the ‘purpose’ of any other media organisation

In all the debate about the terms of the BBC’s renewed Charter, one question seems to have gone unasked, never mind unanswered: why does the BBC need a Charter at all? The political reason why it has one is that it’s the flip-side of being funded by a tax, enforceable in law and if it has that right then it must equally have certain duties. The current debate about what those duties should be is back-to-front: the question should be why such the BBC needs constraining at all.

In the beginning, the licence fee was entirely justifiable. It was only the rich who could afford first radio and then television, and even once the ownership of both became widespread, the BBC remained dominant in radio and the senior partner of a duopoly in TV, meaning that the Corporation was still funded by its viewers – because every TV owner was a viewer. The coming of multi-channel TV might have undermined that argument but the licence fee remained a practical necessity while signals were analogue.

That’s no longer the case and the digital TV revolution, apart from opening up choice far further, also makes real the possibility of switching to a subscription service. It’s a move that should be made as soon as possible because it would end the false debate about purpose.

Those who argue the BBC should not engage in ratings-chasing are wrong. Apart from the entirely obvious point that these programmes are precisely what millions of viewers do actually want, there’s another case for them: competition drives up standards. The quality not only of the BBC output but also that of ITV, Sky, Channel 4 and other players is improved when barriers aren’t artificially introduced. But those critics are right that the BBC shouldn’t abuse its institutional advantage. Their mistake is trying to tackle the symptoms rather than the cause.

There is another aspect to this, which is the BBC’s unique governance and regulatory position; again, a product of its one-time monopoly. There can be little doubt that the BBC has a strong sense of its own exceptionalism and, consequently, its ‘mission’. That’s not only informed by its Charter – though that very much (and rightly) forms part of it – but also by its historic role as the nation’s broadcaster. That is not necessarily a healthy thing, particularly when accountability is diluted in that unlike commercial stations, the BBC has no shareholders and is only partially accountable to OfCom.

So what should happen? I would suggest the following:

  • Abolish the licence fee and move to subscription funding as soon as practically possible.
  • Grant a new Charter to run only as long as the licence fee is needed
  • Replace the BBC Trust with a regular Board of Directors
  • Place the BBC on the same footing as any other broadcaster with respect to OfCom
  • Permit the BBC to play commercial adverts on TV and radio (which doesn’t necessarily mean it will do so universally across its output).
  • Some will argue that subscription funding is unpopular compared with the licence fee, and point to polls that support that. Fair enough, though I’d question how far those polls simply reflect habit. Were the question phrased “do you think the BBC should be funded only by those who watch it”, the responses may be different.

    I would also suggest one other reform. There are inherent conflicts of interest in any organisation owned by the state, both on the side of the broadcaster and on that of the state. As part of the normalisation process, the BBC should be turned into a mutual organisation owned by the licence fee payers (or, in the future, its subscribers). That should guarantee its independence and provide greater accountability while also protecting it from the harshest commercial pressures.

    What should not be allowed is for the status quo to simply continue. The media have changed more in the last ten years than in the Corporation’s first fifty. Change on at least the same scale can be expected over the next decade as people increasingly consume programming, radio, news and information in non-traditional ways. The BBC has tremendous ability but its historic legacy means that it is itself constrained while also being so dominant in some areas it stifles competition and innovation. Setting the Corporation free would not only be good for the entire media sector, it would be good for the BBC too.

    David Herdson

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