michael starksMichael Starks is an Associate of the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at Oxford University and author of ‘The Digital Television Revolution’ whose main professional career was with the BBC. Here he argues that the separate policy issue debates in the BBC Charter Review process mask the core question of whether the BBC remains an inclusive public service provider or moves to a more commercial model. To hear more about the future of the BBC, come to our event Tomorrow’s BBC: Future Funding next Friday (16 October), organised in partnership with the BBC Trust.

It would be easy to see the BBC Charter Review process as a series of separate policy issues, such as:

  • The BBC’s scale and scope – is it too big? Does it inhibit or cramp the commercial media market?
  • The future of the licence fee – is it still viable? Should it be decriminalised?
  • The over-75s – should they be exempt from payment? If so, should the subsidy cost fall on the government or the BBC?
  • The future of the BBC Trust – does it work? If not, how should the the BBC’s governance and regulation be reformed?

There is, however, a big picture to which these and other questions all relate. Is it the long-term destiny of the BBC to remain an inclusive public service, designed for and funded by UK citizens? Or is it to morph into a subscription-based consumer service, with some separate form of publicly funded safety-net with ‘public service programmes’ provided by a range of different broadcasters?

The choice we make between these rival visions of the BBC’s long-term future should shape the answers we give to the main Charter Review questions. This is a connection which I have stressed in my own input to the government’s public consultation and which I have linked to the regulatory issue in an article for the Voice of the Listener and Viewer. We risk ending up at the consumer service plus safety-net destiny without having fully realised or debated it.

The vision of the BBC as a public service designed to serve the whole of the UK, impartially and inclusively, and then to broadcast as an independent public service across the world, has been with us for some 90 years. It is rooted in the idea of citizenship, rather than private consumption, and funded accordingly by the licence fee as a tax. It has adapted to technology change and media pluralism but retains the core idea on which the BBC was founded.

A challenging alternative vision of the BBC, however, has also been with us since the Peacock Commission offered it to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986. The plan here was that ‘subscription should replace the licence fee’ and cover the majority of the BBC’s output. The commercialised BBC would then favour those sections of the population most willing to pay for it. Since this would lead to a loss of public service, a Public Service Broadcasting Council should be set up to support Radios 3 and 4 and to allocate funds to competing broadcasters bidding to make ‘programmes of merit’.

This is indeed a plausible vision. Something like it, though based on advertising, was introduced in New Zealand when TVNZ was commercialised in 1989. In the UK it was set aside in the 1980s and 90s, but resurfaced in a 2004 report by a Broadcasting Policy Group, commissioned by the Conservative Party and led by David Elstein.

In more recent times, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see steps which lead to this vision in:

  • top-slicing of the licence fee and the idea of establishing some contestable public funding, perhaps overseen by a new Public Service Broadcasting Commission
  • the possible decriminalisation of the licence fee
  • the government transfer of financial responsibility for free licences for the over-75s to the BBC, which could then decide its own policy on ‘concessions’, as a subscription-funded organisation would do
  • the possibility of abolishing the BBC Trust and placing the BBC under Ofcom on the same basis as any other broadcaster.

I am not suggesting a coherent long-term conspiracy to implement the Peacock model by stealth. Short-term factors are often more significant in politics: austerity and the drive to cut departmental budgets by exporting costs; a desire to trim the benefits of wealthy pensioners without incurring the political unpopularity of doing so; a pragmatic view that the design of the BBC Trust has not worked; and genuine concern about the number of people, women especially, going to prison for non-payment of fines for licence fee evasion. But Conservative practical politics combined with some residual ideological intent could be leading an unwitting British public in this direction.

The government’s Public Consultation document on the BBC Charter Review sets out a full range of options for the future and thus allows for a proper public debate over the choice between a citizen/public service future for the BBC and a commercial one with a residual minimum of non-commercial content. My argument is that we need to have that debate now: the public consultation is the right time and place.

At heart it is a political choice but one which should be informed by the considered views of the public. If, at the end of the public consultation and study period, the citizen/public service vision prevails, then the new Charter should reflect this through:

  • a broad and inclusive concept of public service, but with clear boundaries more effectively set by the BBC’s objectives;
  • a reformed and strengthened licence fee, seen as a citizen tax separate from government revenue;
  • recognition of the government’s responsibility for deciding public policy on any exemptions;
  • an end to the top-slicing of the licence fee for non-BBC purposes;
  • a transparent process for relating the level of the fee to the funding required to meet the BBC’s agreed purposes, to any exemption policy, to efficiency targets and to inflation;
  • replacement of the BBC Trust, in its present guise, by a BBC-specific external regulator to ensure that the BBC complies with its demanding editorial standards, provides value for money and stays focused on its objectives.

This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.