The BBC is at the centre of a continuous storm of criticism over everything from pay to politics. Some of it is even contradictory – it sometimes seems like everyone on every side of every debate is convinced that the BBC is biased in favour of the other side. This is a symptom of the BBC’s situation, unique amongst broadcasters: because it is funded by everyone, it is in the unenviable position of having to please everyone.
It should not be immune to criticism. The detractors are correct in that the BBC isn’t perfect and doesn’t always get it right. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is the best broadcaster in the world and raises the bar for all British media.
So the recent deal between the government and the BBC over its funding is a very important victory. Any Liberal Democrats who are supporters of the BBC can look at this agreement and be proud of our contribution in government.
Finally the endless criticism that the BBC faces can no longer be used as a political platform from which to launch attacks on its independence or the security of the licence fee. This government has guaranteed the BBC a set licence fee level for the next six years. It cannot be overstated how significant this is. For the first time in a long time, the BBC knows exactly what its funding will be for many years to come. It no longer has to be looking over its shoulder or worrying about what is around the corner.
This is another chapter in our history of standing up for BBC independence. When Labour failed in their attempt to top slice the licence fee to pay for regional news, it was in no small part thanks to Liberal Democrat objections. But there were still fears over what a Conservative government would do. Some claimed the Tories would cut or even axe the licence fee altogether at the first opportunity. With the current licence fee settlement meant to run out in 2012, everyone expected 2011 to consist of long and painful negotiations between the corporation and the government over its future.
Things came to a head much sooner than expected. It was reported a couple of weeks ago that the government planned to shift responsibility for the over-75s free licence scheme to the BBC. This would have cost the Beeb somewhere in the region of £566m a year, a figure set to increase over time.
Along with Baroness Bonham-Carter, I Co-Chair the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Policy Committee for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. With no Liberal Democrat ministers in the DCMS, we worked very hard to ensure that our view of the BBC – that it is valuable and must be preserved – was taken into account. We made it clear that we didn’t want to see the BBC slapped with a welfare bill that had little to do with its core business of broadcasting. We believed that a better solution could be found.
The deal eventually negotiated was a big improvement, costing the BBC substantially less than the Treasury’s original demand. The BBC will take on new responsibilities, such as the World Service and S4C, but it will remain a broadcaster whose accepted role is to invest in UK media.
By accepting these commitments, the BBC demonstrates an understanding of financial pressure both on ordinary members of the public and the wider public purse. In exchange, the BBC has earned some certainty over its financial future. And with the corporation declaring itself satisfied with the deal, it can now concentrate on the important work of getting high quality content onto UK screens.