Friday, 15 May 2015

Beeb terror

It looks like I'm not alone in this (admittedly
unlikely to be unbiassed) poll from Metro
One of the first front page stories about the new government was one that suggested that the BBC licence fee was under threat, as John Whittingdale, the new secretary of state for culture, is known to have concerns about it. Some of the headlines were along the lines of 'War on the BBC!'

This is arguably overblown, but there is no doubt that in the decennial (there's a word you don't get a chance to wheel out too often) review of the BBC's charter, starting soon, there will be various aspects of its work and funding that are challenged. Whether or not this is because the Conservatives and the right-wing media traditionally consider the BBC to have a left-wing bias, it is going to happen.

I ought to spend a moment on that bias claim. It's a classic example of something that is both true and isn't, as things can be in the real world. As this Guardian piece points out, there are individuals in the BBC who, if anything. have a right wing bias, but I think the feeling comes across to anyone who has had exposure to large numbers of BBC programme makers - there is certainly a general atmosphere suggestive of the same kind of mild liberal leftism that dominates academia. In fact, it's probably almost a fact of life in this kind of organization.

What we should avoid is falling into the same trap that NHS supporters often fall into, of assuming that there is no room for improvement and that any change is bad. The fact is, the BBC could be a lot better than it is, and it is important in a multi-channel, multi-platform world that we examine what it does and make sure that it is doing what is appropriate for a public service broadcaster. To get one bugbear out of the way straight away, I am not suggesting advertising. We don't need it - Netflix demonstrates that very clearly.

The BBC has plenty of channels now - remember there's BBC News and BBC Parliament as well CBeebies and the four main channels. It would be perfectly practical to consolidate news and clearly identified public service non-fiction broadcasting on, say 2 channels which remained free to air, funded from taxation and ring-fenced against political interference, and to move the other channels to being subscription-based, doing away with the licence fee entirely. Apart from anything else, this would save a significant amount of money in the whole licence fee collecting and enforcing scheme, as well as avoiding the pain that those poor souls who decide not to have a TV go through when the enforcers don't believe them. (A similar approach could be taken for radio, though the cost there is so relatively small, and there are so few radio channels with direct competitors, that the whole thing could arguably remain public service.)

I have no problem at all with the BBC's excellent facilities and staff being used to produce entertainment, provided it is on a subscription basis - and as long as that subscription is comparable with, say, the price of Netflix at around £6 to £9 a month, I see no reason why it wouldn't be paid by most of the viewing public, as the BBC still has a huge range of very popular shows.

It also would be a good point to explore just what the value is of the BBC's various extended arms and how they should operate. For instance, BBC America makes the excellent series Orphan Black in Canada. The third season of this started showing in the US in April - yet there isn't even a date for it to be shown in the UK. This is ridiculous. Just because it's made by BBC America shouldn't put the BBC's core audience at a disadvantage. Priorities need to be be clear, and they should be the UK.

I honestly don't think future of the BBC is gloomy, as long as you can accept that change isn't always bad.

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