Is the concept of a public service broadcaster an anachronism in a multi channel environment?

In my mind, it’s a question so utterly absurd, so ridiculously ludicrous, that I not even sure why I am wasting time (and blog space) answering it, but here goes…! Of course the concept of a public service broadcaster is still pertinent today; perhaps even more so now than in the past. The BBC performs an important political, social and cultural function, acting in the interest of public good.

John Reith – the former and first director general of the BBC once said of the organisation: “It carries direct information on hundreds of subjects to innumerable people who thereby will be enabled not only to take more interest in events, but who will after a short time be able to make up their own minds on many matters. To disregard the spread of knowledge, with the consequent enlargement of opinion and to be unable to supplement it with reasoned arguments or to supply satisfactory answers to legitimate and intelligent questions is not only dangerous, it is stupid.”

Reith’s words still ring true today. Broadcasting exists not merely to satisfy (read gratify) consumer demands but to entertain, educate and inform. The BBC performs an important political, social and cultural function; acting in the interest of public good. It plays a crucial role in the development of an informed and educated public who can make a mature and reasoned contribution to a democratic society.

The notion that a public service broadcaster is an anachronism simply doesn’t stand up. On 11 September2001, 33 million British citizens watched, listened or accessed a BBC news bulletin. And when it came to the Iraq war, 93 percent of the UK used BBC television. As Ray Connolly, the writer and commentator, points out: “We trust the BBC to get the story right more than anyone else. Because the BBC is more than a broadcaster. It’s an idea and an ideal.” A country needs public service broadcasting; something reflected in the decision of John Humphreys et al to give up their highly lucrative newspaper columns in favour of working at the notoriously poorly paid BBC.

The question of how the BBC should be funded has courted controversy yet I still believe that we would be hard pushed to find a better solution than the mandatory licence fee which accounts for why in a world of tumult and change, the licence fee has lasted. Those pushing for reform argue that change is a visitor who knocks on the door and the wise are those who lay out the welcome mat… I say if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why try to destroy our greatest international ambassador? The licence fee might not be perfect but few things are and the alternatives on offer – advertising and subscription –are far more flawed. We need an unbiased, commercially free and editorially independent media.

As John Humphreys says: “For 80 years the BBC has been the most important cultural institution in this country. It is, for all its many weaknesses, a civilising and a unifying influence. Surveys show that the BBC is trusted more than any other broadcaster. Above all, it is independent of government. It is a cornerstone of our democracy. The licence fee ensures that independence.” Compare BBC news with the slants taken by the tabloids; the BBC has no private or partisan agenda. Contrast the situation in Italy where Silvio Berlusconi uses his three television stations to boost support for Forza Italia and widen the right- of- centre grouping.

The alternatives on offer – advertising and subscription – are far more flawed. If advertising were to be introduced, not only would it mean that the BBC’s schedule would be tightly dictated by people with powerful vested commercial and political interests but there would be less revenue for other commercial broadcasters – such as ITV– whose existence is entirely dependent upon advertising. The introduction of advertising would herald irritating advert breaks with the continuity and flow of programmes hijacked by an onslaught of cultural blitzkrieg. Dissenters argue that the licence fee is too high. An abolition of the licence fee might save households £145.50annually, but my guess is that they will spend a far greater amount than this on consumer goods that have seeped into their consciousness through television advertising. After all, the intended effect of television adverts is to entice viewers to buy new goods. If adverts didn’t have such an effect they would be pointless and cease to exist.

The second option of subscription television, which has surpassed advertising as the biggest cash raiser in broadcasting, is equally unappealing. Children of parents, who subscribed purely to say sports channels, would be deprived of anything vaguely educational.

The anti-licence brigade bleat: “I don’t watch BBC so why should I pay for a service that I don’t use?” They might not watch BBC1 or 2, but chances are they enjoy online services and BBC radio – including local radio – which are subsidised by the licence fee. Besides, this lame argument is equally applicable to any area of tax funded public expenditure. Why should tax payers subsidise council houses they don’t live in? Why should those opting for private health care still contribute to NHS funds and why should parents with a preference to see their offspring privately educated, still contribute to the state education system through taxation?

The licence fee works out at the equivalent of £12.13 per month or just under 40p per person, per day. You can’t even buy a cup of coffee for that! And millions say the licence fee is too expensive? Has the country gone mad? As a former sky subscriber I used to pay £40 per month for dreary pop dross and the privilege of watching the same film 33 times in one month. With the BBC, for mere peanuts you have access to a cornucopia of national TV channels, not to mention national radios, over 50 local services, internet services, high quality local and national news, debate, drama, documentaries, entertainment and educational services, live music and minority language programmes. One word: result?

The £2.7 billion the BBC receives in licence fees means that its quality and quantity of programmes cannot be beaten. As former BBC 1 controller Lorraine Heggessey,  points out: “The range of programmes on BBC 1 is so much bigger, with the science, with more current affairs, with more history, all those specialist genres that you don’t get else where.” The licence fee allows for a far wider range of programmes than celeb studded items offered by the commercial sector and the tabloid papers. The licence fee allows the BBC to invest in making programmes – in the process creating jobs for British writers, actors and engineers – rather than buying cheap, not to mention repetitive US imports. The licence fee means that the BBC contributes to the cultural resources of our society rather than merely offering what’s profitable.

Perhaps further concessions to the licence fee could be made…one would be for the licence fee to be means tested, much like university tuition fees. Reductions for the poor, like the blind, could come into play. Yet ultimately the licence fee is free from commercial pressures, ensures quality content at relatively cheap prices and comes under scrutiny and public inspection: it’s accountable to both licence fee payers and parliament. Surely you can’t get much fairer than that…