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A new BBC Director General for a new BBC? The time is surely right for a subscription service

Jim McConalogue, 24 January 2020

We are a far journey from the British Broadcasting Corporation born in the 1920s. Formed out of a need for public information and education for the beginning of its history, it now competes in an age of misinformation, a lack of impartiality over its party- and Brexit-coverage, a wider plurality of viewing habits and an outdated broadcasting mission which failed to keep up with the times. And now that Lord Tony Hall is stepping down as the Director-General after a long and troubled reign – following the Jimmy Savile child abuse scandal – why not take some time to reflect on an alternative model of funding for the BBC that has fundamentally changed beyond recognition?

It is no longer worthy of the licence fee it takes for its troubles. Millions are already paying £154.50 a year from June this year simply for the right to watch TV and access the BBC’s iPlayer service. The fact is, all public decisions are built on political foundations.

Asked during the general election about the BBC licence fee, Boris Johnson made clear “At this stage we are not planning to get rid of all licence fees, though I am certainly looking at it.…” His response questioned whether we had the same kind of political foundation to still fund the BBC, and whether it “…still makes sense in the long term given the way other media organisations manage to fund themselves.”

Public funding by a general tax clearly raised questions for the man who is now Prime Minister, asking “How long can you justify a system whereby everybody who has a TV has to pay to fund a particular set of TV and radio channels?” It was also clear that Boris had boycotted the BBC during the campaign (surely, a first?), the Beeb having long held an anti-Conservative and an anti-Brexit bias. The ‘progressives’ at the BBC have always taken routine swipes at the party over decades. As if the bias were not already so overt, one of the next touted Director Generals may be the ex-special adviser to Tony Blair, ex-Labour MP and minister, James Purnell, currently their director of radio and education. Outdated and out of touch barely covers it.

The ‘Brexit effect’ only demonstrated a predicament that had already existed for many years. A major report published by David Keighley and Andrew Jubb for our think tank Civitas in 2018 showed that Pro-Brexit views have been under-represented on flagship BBC news programmes for decades. While a large section of the population had long supported the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and a majority voted for it in 2016, their views had been heavily marginalised in the Corporation’s news output. For instance, of 4,275 guests talking about the EU on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme between 2005 and 2015, only 132 (3.2 per cent) were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It was not only dreadful to have failed to incorporate the views of those who desired to leave the EU into its news output but was a shocking indictment of the BBC’s long-term failure to achieve impartiality (always said to be central to its output).

Upon questioning last year by the MP Julian Knight, himself a former BBC journalist, the Culture secretary Nicky (now, Baroness) Morgan also previously conceded she is “open-minded” about replacing the licence fee with a Netflix-style subscription service. Knight also added after Lord Hall’s announcement that the next Director General needs to be someone who is willing to grasp “the nettle of reform”. As he emphasised, there is a “crisis of confidence” from much of the public with its current direction.

The BBC should instead be necessarily financed like other responsible broadcasters – that is, by subscription and owned by its subscribers. The BBC cannot retain its legal and “public duty” rights because the time in which that was required has long passed (if it ever truly existed). The BBC must now be treated in the same way as all other media organisations.

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