Don Foster writes…the BBC licence fee settlement is a win for the Lib Dems

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.

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24 Comments

  • God you Libdems really know how to take sophistry to a whole new level. Do we not currently have a six year licence settlement?

  • I’ll be surprised if the current settlement really does last 6 years. That’s an awfully long time in a market where people are increasingly used to the idea of viewing content when they want, where they want and how they want, and are as likely to get their TV shows over their broadband connection as through the antenna on their roof. The license fee is an anachronism already, in six years time the concept of broadcast television itself could be well on its way to becoming one. It’s already trivially easy to avoid the license without even breaking the law and even easier to avoid getting caught if you do choose to break it. No doubt the BBC’s propaganda department and political shills will be able to keep parroting their justifications for the License for another six years, but I reckon they’ll have increasing difficulty collecting it.

  • You seem a little over-excited about the six year settlement. The last licence fee agreement was also for six years

    “But that doesn’t change the fact that it is the best broadcaster in the world…”

    Where’s the evidence for this? Actually, most of what goes out on BBC is a load of tosh. Cookery programmes, celebrity dancers , junk soaps, million-pound chat-show hosts talking nonsense, raving radio DJs talking more nonsense. If BBC is the best, this simply demonstrates how bad the rest are.

    You conclude with:
    [the BBC]“…can now concentrate on the important work of getting high quality content onto UK screens.”

    Have you forgotten radio?

  • tonygreaves 26th Oct '10 - 3:42pm

    This is a really good news story – thanks, Don. I understand that the deal had to go to the “highest level” before it was agreed – well done Nick Clegg and team.

    What a pity we are not banging the drum much more when Liberal Democrats in and around the government are getting things sorted.

    Tony Greaves

  • The whole idea of special fees, rather than general taxes, for a public service is a silly one. If it’s supposed to benefit the public, then everyone has an advantage (direct or indirect) from it, and everybody should pay. The only reason to use a fee structure is if, for some reason, you want to *discourage* people from using the service; e.g., if it cannot cope with a potentially limitless demand. But that is certainly not the case with the BBC, which is only controlling *access* to the service, not the amount of service provided.

  • Yes, another 6 years of coercing everyone to pay for an entertainment service whether they use it or not, and criminalising anyone who refuses to do so. Hooray for choice. Hooray for liberalism.

  • Patrick Smith 26th Oct '10 - 5:26pm

    It is right to thwart the advances of the Rupert Murdock media mogul empire builders to create the stability for the BBC to continue its role as the main independent public broadcaster.

    Second,the integrity of the BBC World Service is paramout as it goes out to over 188 million listeners in over 30 languges including Burmese,Cantonese,Russian and was understood by many people confronted with denial of freedom and human rights in the `Cold War’ post WW2 history.

    Third,there has been a long tradition in BBC World Service public broadcasting to bring education,the English Language,entertainment and importantly news and cultural affiars programmes to a rich tapestry of listeners around the globe, since 1932.

    For example `Letter from America’ with Alistair Cooke was broadcast on BBC World Service for 50 years.

    It is important to hold to an independent public broadcasting charter role, without bias, for the BBC.

    It is fair that good provision for the over 75 `s, who retain a free licence fee, was made in the 6 year licence agreement.

    It is now the new task of our L/D inspired `Coalition Government’ to strive for a continued plurality in public broadcasting.

    Ther has to room in public broadcasting for small minnows otherwise, soon unless challenged by the Monopolies Commission , Mr Murdock will be the only big fish in control of everything deemed print,sky and terrestial in the UK.

  • @Patrick Smith
    “Second,the integrity of the BBC World Service is paramout …”

    I nearly choked on my coffee when I read that. Much of it is propaganda – haven’t you realised that yet?

  • David Allen 26th Oct '10 - 7:16pm

    I tend to take all these “win for Lib Dems” claims with a large pinch of salt. I am inclined to believe this one, simply because Tony Greaves tells us he knows it is actually true, and I don’t think Tony Greaves is the sort of uber-loyalist who would make that up….!

    However, “banging the drum much more when Liberal Democrats in and around the government are getting things sorted” is not generally going to be easy to do. The public won’t be so readily convinced of the truth of Lib Dem claims. The only way to carry widespread conviction will be to have strenuous public arguments and debates with the Tories over which way to go, and to win them, some of the time!

  • Anything to slow the creeping Murdoch menace.

  • It doesn't add up... 26th Oct '10 - 7:24pm

    @RichardSM

    You are right that the World Service now broadcasts are now dominated by propaganda. It is a trend that was started I believe when Robin Cook become Foreign Secretary. I guess that the hiring of editorial staff has now become so aligned with the previous government that it was easy for Hague to agree to cease funding it, thus achieving a large chunk of his cuts and avoiding the need to be seen to be responsible for trying to change the line either to propaganda in favour of Coalition or to the more neutral line tempered only by the odd D notice that used to exist. The change wouldbe immediately noticed by listeners, either way.

  • @It doesn’t add up…

    No, it goes back to WWII.

  • Tom Papworth 26th Oct '10 - 11:20pm

    @David:

    ” If it’s supposed to benefit the public, then everyone has an advantage (direct or indirect) from it, and everybody should pay.”

    Sounds like the logic behind a state sausage factory! What if people don’t benefit from it? What if you think they benefit from it, but they don’t?

    “The only reason to use a fee structure is if, for some reason, you want to *discourage* people from using the service…”

    …or if you want to give them the choice not to pay for it. Other commentators have mentioned Rupert Murdoch a lot. Do you think he charges because he wants to discourage access? Of course not! He charges for access because that is how he generates revenue, and because the law prevents him from forcing all TV owners to pay for his station even if they don’t like/want it. Why can the same rule not apply to the BBC? If Don is right that the BBC “is the best broadcaster in the world” then why is there so much doubt about its ability to generate revenue from willing viewers? Why must every television owner in the UK be forced to buy its product whether they like it or not?

    Let’s be clear here, people. The only reason for monoploy is to protect high prices or poor quality. So which is it? Is the BBC over-charging? Or is it just peddling rubbish?

  • The BBC isn’t perfect we should all recognise that. Whether or not it is the best broadcaster in the world is arguable, some of its programming is rubbish. However having been exposed to American TV the majority of which is rubbish and German TV, much of which is rubbish I am happy to stick with the dear old Beeb. The licence fee is modest and you will only get what you pay for and on balance I think it is good value.

  • The licence fee is modest and you will only get what you pay for and on balance I think it is good value.

    You like it? Fine. You pay for it then.

  • Ian Sanderson 27th Oct '10 - 1:34pm

    One point that never seems to be made about the BBC is the amount of material that they made or first showed that is now a mainstay of many cable channels. If BBC originated material were to dry up, a number of these private enterprise channels would be out of business.

  • @IainM

    If you don’t watch any other service, you don’t need to apy for the BBC either.

    But since every other service is multiple times more expensive than the BBC, often for lower quality service (with the possible exception of Sky Sports, which has ruined football) you can see that the licence fee model has provided a service of far more value to most people than any of the private broadcsters.

    As people have pointed out above, however, believe it is unsustainable. I think that the future of the BBC should be for it to axe low-quality channels and programs and pay for high-quality news and entertainment which will not be provided by the private sector via general taxation. That means axing BBC three, for example… and combining the most-watched programs fo BBC 3 with BBC 2. Although the BBC has lots of tacky programs, it has a lot of gems as well. The reason why the BBC makes crappy game shows is because it needs to have amss-appeal, if it was funded as a public cultural service, like museums are, it wouldn’t be tied to appealing to the lowest common denominator like prviate broadcasters are.

  • If you don’t watch any other service, you don’t need to apy for the BBC either.
    Of course not, but how is that either reasonable or defensible? Why on Earth should anyone have to pay the BBC to be able to watch channel4, or Sky, or foreign satellite broadcasts?

    But since every other service is multiple times more expensive than the BBC
    Nonsense. There are hundreds of free-to-air channels available, the vast majority of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Rupert Murdoch.

    you can see that the licence fee model has provided a service of far more value to most people than any of the private broadcsters.
    The value argument is a complete red herring. The BBC may be tremendous value for money to those who use it, but it is of precisely 0 value to those who do not. If it’s so good, stick the best bits on subscription and people will buy it. Hell, I’d subscribe myself. My opposition to the BBC is 100% based on my objection to the way it’s funded, it has nothing to do with how it spends the money it receives.

    As people have pointed out above, however, believe it is unsustainable. I think that the future of the BBC should be for it to axe low-quality channels and programs and pay for high-quality news and entertainment which will not be provided by the private sector via general taxation. That means axing BBC three, for example… and combining the most-watched programs fo BBC 3 with BBC 2. Although the BBC has lots of tacky programs, it has a lot of gems as well. The reason why the BBC makes crappy game shows is because it needs to have amss-appeal, if it was funded as a public cultural service, like museums are, it wouldn’t be tied to appealing to the lowest common denominator like prviate broadcasters are.
    Personally, I’d protect the bits of the corporation that can genuinely claim to be providing a public service – news and current affairs or children’s TV, for example – and fund them through general taxation. The rest of it I’d break up and flog or place on a subscription model.

  • murray watt 27th Oct '10 - 3:55pm

    I can’t see how giving the BBC an income reducing in real terms over the next 6 years and forcing it to fund extra items can possibly be good. I wonder if they still have the Goon Show’s ‘ringing till’ sound effect – they could sell it to Cameron who could use it as he murmurs ‘thank you Mr Murdoch’

  • “you can see that the licence fee model has provided a service of far more value to most people than any of the private broadcsters.
    The value argument is a complete red herring. The BBC may be tremendous value for money to those who use it, but it is of precisely 0 value to those who do not”

    But that is all part of it being a ‘public service’ broadcaster. Should your taxes go on subsidising music or museums? I would say yes, you may say no.

    Personally I agree with you that the licence fee is not the best way to fund the service, the current model is simply wrong – but that is more to do with the way I think public services should be funded (i.e through general taxation).

    I would say the BBC has proven itself to be a massive cultural asset over the years, although that does not necessarily mean all of the programs on the BBC are high quality.

    I just couldn’t imagine beyond the fringe, monty python, yes minister being broadcast by anything other than a private service broadcaster, especially today.

  • John Fraser 28th Oct '10 - 8:09am

    I can’t quite see how a 6 year rate freeze plus taking on extra responsibilities is in any way a graet victory. This will probibly amount to a real term cut of 25% and could be far worse if we get a bout of inflation . Without being indexed in some way the Tories may well get their wish of leaving the BBc to wither on the vine and letting Murdochs empire further monoploize.

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