The BBC headquarters in Portland Place, London (BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)
The Culture Secretary, Michelle Donelan, congratulated the BBC on its 100th anniversary with a less than warm-hearted message, suggesting that it should deliver value, fairness and choice. Setting aside its current threadbare content and its record on fairness on and off screen the key message was contained in the word ‘choice.’
The BBC has outstayed its welcome as an uncontrolled monopoly for at least ten years in an era of plentiful broadcast spectrum. It takes all the licence fee money, enforced by a law forbidding the consumption of any live TV not just the BBC, and spends it randomly. If the government, that is the taxpayer, wishes to support the creative industries then it should be done on a fair and competitive basis not by directing a big dollop of cash exclusively to one institution with an entrenched group culture.
The air of entitlement in comments by the BBC Chairman and Director-General to mark the anniversary beggars belief. ‘Its best days are ahead’ - admittedly, judging by present performance it can’t get much worse; ‘A beacon of trusted news’ - the sons of Princess Diana and Cliff Richard might disagree; ‘Devotion to public service’ (yes, of course, the BBC is just like our dear late Queen) ’will guide the next 100 years.’
The statements reek of smugness, infallibility and most of all self-delusion. Despite the £4 billion hand-out, the BBC makes few compelling programmes and audience numbers are dwindling. Millions have already avoided the licence fee by giving up live viewing of all channels which, frankly, must amount to a restriction of freedom of expression. In short, the BBC is finished as an institution sustained by a forced tax and the government should not wait until 2027 to end this system. In five years the BBC will have managed itself into a corpse. Replacing the licence fee by some other public funding mechanism that favours the BBC would be no better.
The best and only remedy is to cut the BBC free with its huge archive and resources and let it make its way in the free market as a private company, with a nice initial dividend for the taxpayer. Like the proposed Channel 4 privatisation, the creative community will be up in arms because they prefer the current old luvvie system in which they can pitch any third-rate tosh to managements that have no market pressures to make a return for shareholders.
In these days of unlimited spectrum the BBC does not need to be supported by a tax - both Strictly Come Dancing and Gary Lineker will find a home elsewhere, deserved or not. The public service and impartiality arguments are not a defence - if the nation wants genuine public service content then a general government subsidy could be distributed to multiple providers to ensure ethnic and regional cultural diversity, something sadly lacking today.
And of course news delivery is slanted through the subjective selection of stories, the presenter or reporter’s body language and multiple other factors. True impartiality is only achieved by giving the public the choice of multiple providers. The BBC has actively prevented that choice by building a predominant position in news delivery online, way beyond its original remit.
It suits many in the media establishment to support the status quo. ITV would be horrified if the BBC was privatised and took advertising. And the BBC is well protected by its tentacles that spread across Parliament and regulators populated by ex-BBC soldiers and the armies of London law firms and consultants regularly sprinkled with BBC largesse. The Culture Secretary not only needs the courage to take on the BBC in order to give the nation freedom of choice as to what media it pays for, she also has to overturn the wider establishment that is infested with self-interest.
Even UK news publishers who should champion freedom of the press and freedom of choice and who have the BBC as an online competitor, are shamefully reluctant to oppose the licence fee - perhaps, or more likely, because they are fearful that the consequence would be the emergence of some more skilled competitors. In the meantime our increasingly hard-up citizens are condemned to an undemocratic system that forces them to pay for a media and news service that they may either not wish to consume or to which they object.
David Montgomery is executive chairman of this title’s parent company, National World plc