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Everyone admires many things about the BBC, some go so far as to love everything about it, and some of those people don’t even work for it.
Often, it seems, those that love it most are foreigners who compare its output with the fare provided by their national broadcasters. But even they are puzzled when, on visits to the UK, they notice the vast amount of self-promotion it indulges in. Why, they wonder, when it is financed by a universal licence fee backed by the force of the criminal law?
Naturally, the BBC want people to watch and listen to particular shows but they also want licence payers to buy in to both its ‘uniqueness’ and the wide range of its services. The amount of that kind of generic promotion is reaching epic proportions just now because it is approaching time for Charter Review; the once a decade talking shop when ‘the nation’ debates the future of the BBC and then decides to continue with a compulsory license fee because everything else risks the end of the BBC which, for all its problems, no one wants.
In recent weeks, the ten-yearly tumult has begun to build. In response to a groundswell of political and public opinion, an independent inquiry was set up to decide if it was best to keep criminal sanctions – including imprisonment – for those who don’t pay the licence. It has decided the sanctions should stay; good news for the BBC that lobbied for this outcome but also a clear indication that in a world of alternative media and alternative access, the BBC believes these sanctions are needed to keep the public paying up.
Following the surprise Conservative victory, it has been floated there should be a ‘fundamental’ review of the size of the BBC and the way it is funded – the least surprising thing for a new Tory government to do. The BBC has responded by encouraging – even organising – prominent performers and journalists to declaim the move as a cynical attempt to undermine or even close the whole organisation – the least surprising thing for the BBC to do. We now look forward to a summer of shrill and shouty debate where both sides over play the intentions of the other.
In the end, economics will dictate. Whether you believe the BBC simply does too much (sometimes just because it can) or distorts markets with its expansionism, the fact is it will have to do less in the future. Not even the most committed public funding enthusiast can believe the licence fee could now be raised by anything like the real rate of inflation in broadcasting and, therefore, the BBC will have to live on less money in real terms. That means it can either do everything it currently does but less well, or it can do less things better.
This is the more important question than how it is funded. With subscriptions, the BBC could do all sorts of things, doubtless brilliantly, for those willing and able to pay, but that’s never been the point of the BBC – it must fundamentally remain a licence fee driven organisation. But it can’t continue to be all things for all people because today – unlike in previous years – it cannot hope to provide most of most of the people’s media consumption most of the time. What it must do is provide the kind of media most people want to see some of the time and it is impossible or unlikely the commercial market will produce.