Sharing the licence fee could reinvigorate the BBC

Yes, let's share the licence fee with producers outside of the BBC. But why not include news and bring British broadcasting into the 21st century?

Aaron Bastani
16 May 2016

What the licence fee funds currently. Credit: DCMSLast week the government released its white paper on the forthcoming renewal of the BBC Charter. Prior to that event, many viewed the Corporation as under threat from a disapproving government and, in the person of John Whittingdale, a hostile Secretary of State. Only a week earlier footballer and national treasure Gary Lineker had tweeted how Whittingdale was a ‘chump’ after it was reported he had joked about privatising the BBC to a Tory student society. And yet, despite all that, the reforms it will now be subject to are relatively minor.

Despite Whittingdale’s politics, that should come as little surprise. Over two hundred thousand people responded to last year’s green paper ahead of the main event, showing that the BBC – along with the NHS – is a much-loved national institution. While not universally admired, its defenders are sufficiently numerous to mean that comprehensive change, such as privatisation or the introduction of advertising, would be a battle few governments would choose to pick. 

Yet despite the fact that many of the reforms will be agreeable to Tony Hall and the BBC’s supporters alike, there are elements which Whittingdale has clearly driven through. While the former political secretary to Margaret Thatcher has not torn, he has certainly tinkered.

That is most clear with the removal of the in‐house guarantee for all television content except news and current affairs. Commissioning will now be subject to competition, with independent companies set to make a fair amount of programming in the near future. For advocates of the market that will mean reduced costs and better content. For critics it will be viewed as analogous to outsourcing, with lower quality control and greater precarity for media workers. 

And yet, within that same de-centralising paradigm, there are some changes which appear to be overwhelmingly positive. Foremost among them is the creation of a new ‘Public Service Content Fund’, which will consist of £20 million a year for a two-three year trial period starting in 2018. It looks set to resource TV and online content which focuses on under-served genres, as identified by Ofcom, and under-served audiences, such as BME groups.

What is more it will be contestable, a big innovation in the context of the BBC and the licence fee. Its evaluation criteria will likely include value for money (including likely impact and reach), creative risk-taking and innovation. For now it seems that applications to the fund will be considered by a small panel of appointed industry figures. Not dissimilar, then, to the current set-up with Arts Council England funding. 

Both measures, in their own way, undermine the historic model of public service broadcasting. The first means that nearly all BBC content could, in theory, be produced out-of-house. The second means the licence fee could increasingly pay for content produced by independent organisations which won’t even appear on BBC platforms. 

Writing last year for Our Beeb’s ‘One Hundred Ideas for the BBC’, I suggested that meaningful public service broadcasting needs to move beyond both market and state production. My proposal to achieve that, was the creation of a contestable fund which would resource not only new media organisations but local papers too. Some of this content might appear on BBC channels, most of it wouldn’t.

The new Public Service Content Fund looks like a big step towards that proposal. The only problem is that news and current affairs looks set to be left out. That is particularly strange given the White Paper writes of how the fund might stimulate plurality in “areas such as children’s programming where the BBC has a near-monopoly and where contestability might deliver new, fresh content”.

I’d agree that its in those areas where such a fund could make a real difference. Yet we know that it is in news and current affairs, more than almost anywhere else, that the BBC enjoys excessive market share, with 70% of the TV news market and 75% when it comes to radio news. That is unhealthy for public debate, especially when the BBC is constrained by the political climate at Westminster. Such a context has meant that while the Corporation produces world-class drama and documentaries, the same cannot be said for its news journalism. 

Contestable funding should not be viewed as undermining the BBC’s commitment to public service broadcasting, but rather a confirmation of it. The Public Service Content Fund could be the beginning of a different kind of BBC. For that to really be the case however, news and current affairs should also be included. What is more the sums involved, should the pilots show value and quality, should be much higher. I’ve previously proposed that a third of the BBC News budget, approximately £120 million, should be awarded in this manner. That money would allow new media organisations, as well as local papers, to not only cover existing overheads but invest in creating new platforms, as well as web development, graphic design and social media. It would also pay for a national renaissance in independent investigative journalism.

It would be a tragedy for the BBC to be privatised, and while progressives should oppose any cuts to a world-class institution, they should not resist change for the sake of it. The model that the public service content fund might provide, if applied to news as well, would strengthen civil society and foster more meaningful conversations. It would be rethinking public service media in the Twenty-First Century. It would make some cracking telly as well. 

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