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Nadine Dorries’ recent announcement that the BBC Licence fee is to be frozen for two years, and, more provocatively, that the licence fee as the way it is funded would end in 2027, has generated a lot of heat but not much light – on both sides of the debate.
I certainly do not come to this debate with clean hands. In 2010 I was part of the ministerial team that did indeed freeze the licence fee. We also transferred the funding of S4C, the Welsh Channel, from government to the BBC, and later free pensioners licences. The previous Labour government used the licence fee to fund the roll-out of broadband. So, the licence fee has always been subject to political whim.
Debate about what the BBC actually does is also a constant, and never more so in such a fast-changing media landscape. With more and more people now paying for content through subscription services, and an almost limitless supply of content available on internet platforms, it is perfectly legitimate to debate how far the BBC should reach.
And of course, the plethora of subscription services does mean it is appropriate to debate the mechanism for funding the BBC. Even its keenest supporters accept it is regressive, with the rich paying the same as the poor, and at best is the least worst option.
Moving from a universal licence fee to a more commercial form of funding will prove a lot more difficult in practice
Nevertheless, we should be able to come together around some pretty basic principles about why we should keep the BBC alive and thriving. The BBC is one of the world’s most respected broadcasters, supported by millions of people around the world, and projecting Britain’s soft power. At home, despite the fragmentation of media, it commands strong audiences. It provides services that are not commercial – not least children’s programming and local radio.
In an era of fake news and disinformation, and ever more partial newspapers, the BBC’s news is actually more important than ever – however much it annoys politicians from both sides.
Finally, we should realise that the platforms and the streamers, as well as several broadcasters, are all foreign owned, mainly by US companies. There must therefore be some level of agreement that we should maintain an institution that is unequivocally British based, creating British content, and in which we all have a stake.
Achieving change will not be easy. There have already been some tentative steps. The licence fee now pays for a content fund, which creates public service programmes for other channels. The BBC is free to trial subscription services, and has launched BritBox with commercial broadcasters.
Unnoticed in Ms Dorries announcement is the ability for the BBC to borrow more – to invest in commercial ventures which will earn it a return. And the BBC has got much better at selling its programmes around the globe.
My hunch is that we will still be discussing these issues in ten years’ time. There will be a lot more BBC joint ventures, but moving from a universal licence fee to a more commercial form of funding – whether by subscription or other means – will prove a lot more difficult in practice, fraught with complex politics.
The BBC may have its faults – but it is our least worst option if we want to keep British media culture alive.
Lord Vaizey is a Conservative peer and former culture minister.
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