To be or not to be – Diana Coyle as the next BBC Trust Chair?

Diana Coyle has the brains and clear-sightedness to be what the BBC needs next.

Lis Howell
8 July 2014

Diana Coyle/wikimedia

Diana Coyle is Acting Chairman of the BBC Trust and she made a speech on the 23rd of June at the London School of Economics, where she was introduced and interviewed by Professor Charlie Beckett.

The BBC Trust is not the BBC. It was set up in 2007 to ‘govern’ the BBC and to separate that governance from the management via the ‘trustees’ though they are not trustees in a legal sense. There are 12 of them, most of whom you would never have heard of - and that is a good thing. These are representative people who are supposed to control the BBC on behalf of you and me, who pay for it. The Trust website says “BBC Trustees are appointed by the Queen on advice from DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) ministers through the Prime Minister. When new Trustees are needed the posts are publicly advertised. Trustees are chosen on merit and the process is regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.” They are not elected and we have no say in who they are, but by and large they seem to be sensible well-meaning, well-informed people representing a cross section of well-to-do well-educated Britons.

But something odd seems to happen to some of them once they become BBC Trustees. They seem to fall in love. You can see this happening if you go to any debate or conference about the funding of the BBC via the licence fee. One BBC trustee whom I know, a TV executive whom I would have thought blessed with healthy scepticism, has become a complete and total advocate of the licence fee and dismisses any concern about it. And Diane Coyle spoke almost passionately about the need for licence fee to be retained. There is a body of people to whom any suggestion that the licence fee funding might need to be changed, is met by a mixture of fear, disgust and contempt for those ‘barking’ enough to suggest it.

In fact it was Lord Grade, not a BBC Trustee but its first Chairman, who used the word ‘barking’ to describe the contributions made by me and journalist Nick Ross at a recent Royal Television Society discussion at the House of Commons. Lord Grade, an entertaining and inspiring speaker of enormous experience and great charm, actually was heard harrumphing at any suggestion that the licence fee system should be questioned, and in fairness I must add that he was met with a lot of head nodding from the audience. They were dominantly grey heads and some were nodding for different reasons (it was a warm evening). But there was a prevailing feeling amongst the audience that questioning the licence fee was on a par with being an Australian republican, or biting other footballers, or keeping British values out of schools.

 I had heard the same thing, in a very different tone, voiced by Diane Coyle the day before in her speech at the LSE. In a comprehensive, talk which some described as job application for the post of Chairman of the BBC Trust, Dr Coyle talked about the need for more ethnic diversity on and off screen, the need for more women on and off screen, and the need for BBC 1 to be edgier and take more risks. It was a good mixture of credit where it was due; and a ‘to do’ list with which few would argue. But when it came to the terrible twins of licence fee funding and independence from government, Dr Coyle began to sound defensive. She called both for greater independence from government for the BBC, but also for the funding which ultimately comes from government (the licence fee) to be retained. There is inherent stress in this position. But it is highly topical – we are entering into the BBC charter renewal period which has a notorious recent history. In 2010 there was an infamous 48 hours when the government and the BBC executive went into a short secret and vicious battle about the licence fee billions, resulting in the infamously named ‘top slicing’ agreement where the government got its hands on more of the licence fee loot for other projects. This has rankled terribly with people at the BBC.

But in fact it is not unreasonable. Should any organisation be given £3.6 billion pounds and told to go off and do what it likes? Especially if that includes paying off their mates with huge sums of money? If the BBC is funded by a sort of tax, then the elected government must have a say in how the money is spent. Arguing both for greater independence and for the licence fee is like arguing for your parents to give you a car and unlimited petrol, and to let you go off up the motorway on the wrong side of the road. In her speech Dr Coyle cited as demonstrating a threat to the BBC’s independence, the number of appearances BBC executives made before parliamentary select committees. And she voiced unhappiness about the National Audit Office wanting a longer look at the books. But surely that is the price the BBC must currently pay for a secure, huge yearly payment and a tremendous amount of freedom over how it is spent?

But nevertheless there was some substance in Dr Coyle’s call for independence. Our political system means that political parties are constantly vying for power, so that a state funded broadcaster will inevitably be getting it in the neck from both sides. In my view this has led to a sort of kowtowing to conventional politicians and also to the political class of all colours, demonstrated by a statistic we came up with at City University which shows that ten times as many men as women feature in political coverage. News journalists are more secure dealing with the already powerful, to whom they know they owe their livelihoods. I must stress that our figure comes from a straw survey, but it rings true with many young female viewers. So it is arguable that, if the BBC editorial independence is actually being skewed by a desire to keep in with the great and good, perhaps there really should be another way to fund it. The licence fee, like a marriage licence, binds BBC and government together in an unhappy but symbiotic relationship. The BBC should welcome the chance to find another funding mechanism which keeps government at arms’ length, while still giving universal provision of a basic public service.

To put it bluntly, if the BBC is so confident of its popularity with the public, perhaps it should put its mouth where its money is? Why not try asking those Britons who love it so much to pay more directly for BBC services? In the current climate of technological change, my proposed interim solution, is to have a much smaller core service paid for by a licence fee levied on all households, on the reasonable assumption that Public Service Broadcasting is a good thing which we all need to have access to even if we don’t use it, like the NHS. But on top of that, let us pay for other things we want, including iPlayer, separately through subscription. And I maintain that the new, lower licence fee which I would have levied on all households, should also be available for ‘top slicing’, so other broadcasting initiatives can be paid for. The licence fee does not belong to the BBC - and if the government of the day wishes to use part of it to support local television or S4C, well, that is one of the things they are elected to do. How else could any other form of public service broadcasting be funded? The answer from the BBC often seems to be that there shouldn’t be any other form of public service broadcasting– that everything we currently need, every development we want, every undreamed of innovation we have yet to think of, can be handled by the BBC. Really? The BBC may have invented the iPlayer but it did not invent satellite transmission or twenty-four hour news or Goggle Box! It cannot do everything and it is not always right.

What I am getting to, is that the licence fee is threatened anyway, by the growth of technology, and this should give the BBC the perfect opportunity to look at the whole issue of funding, and move beyond the current licence fee to something more modern and consumer led. I have asked many knowledgeable people the following question over and again - how, when people can legally access BBC programmes for nothing via the iPlayer, can the fundamental premise of the licence fee be sustained? The licence fee is paid by households for the right to have equipment used for accessing a live television feed. Between 2 and 3% of households currently do not pay the licence fee but can obtain BBC (and other public service broadcasting material) legally from iPlayer, or even ‘live’ on their PCs which don’t count as television receiving equipment. (At least the BBC has now started acknowledging this as a serious issue, unlike in the BBC Trust’s submission last year to the CMS Select Committee on the Future of the BBC.)

In Diane Coyle‘s speech she mentioned briefly ‘future proposals’ to ensure people who only watch BBC content via iPlayer or computers, pay the licence fee. But what future proposals? At the RTS debate Lord Grade dismissed the issue of the iPlayer, saying in effect that another fiver integrated into the licence fee would solve the problem. But this doesn’t address the issue at all, because even if you did that, how would you enforce it? How do you know who is getting BBC material through the computer? The simple answer is to have a system whereby when you pay your licence fee you get a password which, like Wifi, or Netflix, applies to a number of devices in a household or per licence. If you don’t have a password you can’t get iPlayer. It sounds like the end of the problem but in fact it’s the beginning, because for a start it’s not the way the licence fee operates. If paying for your password is integrated into your licence fee it would change the nature of it, fundamentally. What would happen, is that for the first time TV supply would be more like gas or electricity where the sanction for non-payment, ultimately, is cutting you off. If you don’t pay your licence fee you don’t get your TV (via iPlayer that is.) This is a basic change in the premise, though it might help solve the other issue of criminalisation of non-licence fee players.

But it also causes another, bigger intellectual problem. What about ITV “player” and Channel 4 “player”? It would be possible for a household or individual viewer to decide not to pay the licence fee, and therefore not to get a live TV signal, but to get content from ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. They could effectively and legally get their TV for the first time by opting out of the BBC. And what does that amount to? It means that if you opt in, you are effectively subscribing to the BBC, which Lord Grade calls ‘barking’. Unless, of course, the government makes it necessary to have a licence fee and a password for ALL internet connection to TV, not just the BBC. There are two problems with this – firstly, you would then most definitely have to introduce ‘competitive funding’ or a form of ‘top slicing’ to pay their fair share back to those non BBC broadcasters and how would that be assessed? And secondly, the cookies needed to enable this function would give government, or the BBC, or whoever administered it, unprecedented access to your computer and what you do on it. This is too big a story to go into here but take a look at Wired's coverage. They may be doing it already - but a government given password to allow you to watch TV on your mobile? I don’t know about you but it gives me the creeps!

But to get back to Lord Grade’s solution of slapping a fiver on the licence fee for BBC catch-up, many people would agree. The received view is that most households would just pay a slightly increased licence fee, and happily get BBC content on line via a password, leaving a tiny minority of ITVplayer viewers and other iconoclasts to forswear BBC content, sad fools! Well, perhaps not. The number of legal catch-up users who don’t want a TV licence is growing, but interestingly it is also concealed. At the end of the RTS session one of the very few young people in the room came up to me and said “You’re right. But no-one is listening to you.” She was one of those who legally get all they want from non-TV devices without paying for a household TV licence. Would she pay a £150 licence fee to get a few BBC shows on iPlayer? I don’t think she would bother. There are five people individually watching content simultaneously in her ‘household’ without paying. They don’t ignore the licence fee through rebelliousness or poverty. They just don’t think about it. The only time they all sit round a TV set to watch a live transmission is to watch England lose at sport, and they usually do that down the pub. Those five will possibly equate to three or four future households, all inhabited by people who have long forgotten about the licence fee, and who probably will get their TV content somewhere else. Another point is that a large number of under 30s are using iPlayer, not live TV and are covered currently by their parents’ licence fee. This disguises the number of households where iPlayer is the only source of TV content for most of the inhabitants. When the oldies have gone into a home, or when (hopefully) the kids have moved out, will those children buy a TV licence? I don’t think so….. by that time they will have long lost the household habit and they just won’t be on that wavelength. If the BBC grasps that nettle and starts marketing some of its programmes by subscription now, it will militate against the erosion of its future audience. In any case, subscription to some BBC services is coming by default, and a mixed economy which acknowledges this is commonsense, not ‘barking’ at all.

Diane Coyle was impressive. I would love to see her as the next Chairman of the BBC Trust. She ticks a lot of boxes for me. She is temperate, well-informed, intelligent, from the North, female. What is there not to like? But I am uneasy. I’m as keen on the BBC as the next viewer but I’m acutely aware that Trust members aren’t elected, that BBC executives have been overcompensated, that women do not have proper representation on or off screen, and that a certain type of powerful man is made more powerful within the BBC. I have worked for the BBC, and also worked in ITV in its heyday and I was the first managing editor at Sky News. I have seen the BBC from within and also at its most ruthless and self protective, taking over other peoples’ ideas and absorbing them like an amoeba. It worries me when a potential Chairman of the BBC Trust becomes such a blatant BBC apologist and advocate of the status quo in terms of funding. The BBC should not want to get even bigger and more powerful, and consequently more dependent on government and hating itself for it. It should be exciting, inventive, and rely on the affection from the British public which it constantly boasts of.

The Corporation will only survive, like all adaptable species, if it re-invents itself. I see little sign of acknowledging this in Dr Coyle’s job application. She is married to the BBC’s Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan Jones, but that doesn’t mean that she needs to be married to the BBC! Au contraire. But I am also sure that, given the confidence of having the job, Diane Coyle would be able to find the necessary objectivity. The office makes the woman as well as the man. And I think that with a little more inventiveness in the mix, she has the brains and clear-sightedness to be what the BBC needs next – a Trust Chairman who can rethink the premise for the BBC funding. If she won’t do it, someone else will have to.

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