Lord Anthony Lester writes…We will march in the streets for the BBC

Tomorrow the government will publish a white paper setting out its plans for the future of the BBC. At the BAFTA awards on Sunday the director Peter Kosminsky rightly received a standing ovation. He used his acceptance speech to voice his fear that the White Paper will compromise our precious, independent, world-renowned organisation. He cautioned that the BBC was on a path to evisceration that would leave the broadcasting landscape bereft – and the output of television and radio determined solely by what lines the pockets of shareholders.

Those fears are not fanciful. The BBC has retained its reputation for world-class programming over the last decade despite increasingly painful cuts. As Lord Patten pointed out in a major lecture at the Reuter’s institute last week, the BBC’s real income has fallen over the past decade by more than 15%. In the past five years alone BSkyB’s revenues went up by more than 16% and ITV’s increased by 21%.

Being effective as a public services broadcaster depends on having a guaranteed source of revenue. That is and has been the licence fee. It must be owned by the BBC, not by the government. It must not be sliced off to feed commercial rivals. The government has no business raiding it, like when it dumped the cost of free licences for the over 75s on the BBC rather than taxpayers. That undermined morale within the BBC as well as public trust and confidence. The BBC is not an arm of government that sets welfare policy and it would cause public outrage if it were forced to become one. The BBC must stand independent from government, free to call it to account.

It has been rumoured that Downing Street is seeking a “break clause” to be able to renegotiate the BBC Charter at any time – so the government can hold it on a tighter financial leash. The threat of renegotiation at the government’s displeasure could easily have a chilling effect on the BBC’s content, particularly during elections. It would certainly frustrate long-term financial planning.

I have asked the Minister to give a public assurance that the government will not sneak out the White Paper after Parliament is prorogued. With support from Liberal Democrat colleagues and a cross-party coalition of Peers led by Norman Fowler, Waheed Alli and David Puttnam, I have crafted a private members’ bill to protect the BBC against coercion. My bill prevents the Secretary of State from transferring public expenditure from the taxpayer to the BBC. It ensures that the licence fee rises at least in line with inflation. It provides for charter renegotiation only once a decade, decoupled from the election cycle, without interference in the interim. It places the governance of the BBC in the hands of an independent board, independently chosen – and not by government. It places the government under a duty to give the BBC sufficient funds to perform its functions, the level of the licence fee set according to an open and transparent process.

If the government gives way on these issues in the White Paper, I will withdraw the bill. But if the White Paper seeks to diminish the BBC, I and my colleagues across the House will take it all the way. The BBC is a national treasure. If the government undermines it, we will march in the streets.

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  • We will march in the streets for the BBC… Thermos Flasks in hand, smoked salmon sandwiches and a rolled-up Guardian in our briefcases and handbags.

  • Chris Rennard 11th May '16 - 12:23pm

    Wolf Hall Director Peter Kosminsky was brilliant at the BAFTA Awards on Sunday night and everyone should watch what he said: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2SmCHkH3Kk.
    The Bill which Anthony has drafted is important in terms of our culture and the kind of society that we have. It is also an important issue in terms of democracy as the Government seeks to ensure that critical and impartial comment on news and current affairs is weakened. This Government aims to ensure that it cannot be challenged fairly in the media which is an important element in our democracy. We are not yet in the same place as Russia, Turkey, Poland or Hungary for example. But they have already reduced BBC funding significantly and now seek to take more direct control of it. The Conservatives want to ensure that there is more power in the hands of Rupert Murdoch’s News Group, Viscount Northcliffe’s Daily Mail and the Barclay Brothers’ Telegraph. They appear to be seeking to avoid any constraints on their abuse of power that might follow Leveson 2. The threatened full or part privatisation of Channel 4 is also part of this attempt to reduce the influence of the most impartial sources of news and information that people can rely on. We have recently helped to prevent their attempts to make the party funding arrangements even more lop-sided in their favour. We must work to prevent them emasculating the BBC in the way that Peter Kosminsky warned.

  • Whilst admiring the ‘serious’ programmes on the BBC I no longer bother watching their television news….
    Biased, selective and superficial are the three words that come to mind… I find Channel 4 news far more balanced and incisive…

  • Eddie Sammon 11th May '16 - 1:09pm

    I support a cut in the licence fee and press regulation for the private press too, albeit only light-touch. The problem is too many people in the press, the BBC and otherwise, act and speak as though they should operate in a legal vacuum. I wouldn’t mind this if they didn’t regularly campaign for high regulation on others businesses, but they do.

    I’ve written complaints to the BBC, my main one being they are running their news service in a bit of a click-bait fashion and they reject these complaints. I still strongly believe this is what they are doing so my only options left are to write to the BBC Trust or support a licence fee cut if they do not change.

    The problem with the BBC Trust being entirely independent of the government is that it would be unaccountable.

    Why are Liberal Democrats supporting a regressive flat-rate licence fee to rise with inflation?

    I think the BBC has also been guilty of press intrusion recently by investigating David Cameron’s mum’s finances and plastering John Whittingdale’s sex life over its news homepage.

    The BBC is also guilty of hypocrisy because whilst it thinks it can justify the above two investigations under “public interest” it has refused to disclose what it pays its top stars, some of whom are being paid via companies, arguably for the purpose of tax avoidance.

    Alastair Campbell was also right that the BBC has overstepped its mark in the past and sacrificed accuracy for the sake of creating headlines around the world.

    If they refuse to respond to complaints adequately and continue to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of creating drama then it should be cut.

  • David Allen 11th May '16 - 1:49pm

    Yes, the BBC does some things badly, just like the NHS does some things badly, and the Brusssels bureaucrats do some things badly. Should we conclude that we can happily scrap the BBC, scrap the NHS, and Brexit?

    Then again, private industry does some things badly, private finance does some things badly (not “arf”!), and the Whitehall bureaucrats do some things badly. Should we conclude that we can happily scrap private enterprise and replace Whitehall with the dictatorship of the proletariat?

  • Thank goodness for Lord Lester…..

    @ Eddie Sammon “I support a cut in the licence fee and press regulation for the private press too, albeit only light-touch.” How about a definition of press regulation albeit only light touch ? How light is light and who decides that ? How big a cut in the licence fee and on what formula ? A bit more profound thinking please.

    As to the licence fee I reckon £ 12 per month is pretty good value compared to the £ 40, £ 50 £ 60 per month paid for the Murdoch stuff. Are you going to regulate Sky subscriptions ?

    The direction you’re travelling in, Mr Sammon, will lead to the media being completely controlled by a bunch of ex-pat billionaires who pay no tax in this country but with a cosy relationship with the Tory Party and a down market right wing agenda of programmes about ‘benefit cheats’ and multi-millionaire footballers – and no doubt a controlling interest in who runs politics in this country.

    Classic example last night on Sky Sports, West Ham v Manchester United. True – a great match – but not a hint of any criticism about the scandal about the cost to the taxpayer about the transfer to the Olympic Stadium. Far too cosy for that.

    As far as I’m concerned, the BBC treads the path of impartiality with skill and it is truly a treasure to preserv.

  • Nick Collins 11th May '16 - 3:11pm

    I agree with Lords Lester and Rennard.

    If I live to 75 (only two years to go and I’ve just taken the gamble of renewing my Senior Railcard for three years!) I will happily continue to pay my license fee, provided that all of it goes to the BBC. But I do not, and will not, subscribe to BSkyB: even ‘though that means foregoing the facility to watch live Test Cricket on tv.

  • Nick Collins 11th May '16 - 5:06pm

    Perhaps that should be “Test Cricket live on tv”?

  • Eddie Sammon 12th May '16 - 12:50am

    Hi David Raw, maybe a 5% cut in the licence fee? Nothing big, it is just the principle really that if they continue to operate with an attitude that ratings rule all or nearly all and ignore complaints about it then I think it should be cut.

    When organisations prioritise sales or other numerics above quality then they end up losing the central purpose of their organisation. It is publicly funded too – why does it give the impression that it wants to “eat from both plates”?

    When it comes to regulation, as an example of some things I’ve either came across or thought of myself:

    1. Corrections as big as the initial mistake
    2. Respect private space when “door stopping” – if someone refuses an interview journalists shouldn’t be able to shove devises into people’s faces.
    3. No long-zoom lenses onto private areas.
    4. No publishing of leaks that clearly damage national security or invade personal privacy.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th May '16 - 1:56am

    As a member of our party , who is a professional in the arts , creative industries , media and culture , and has years of input in this area ,and currently setting up a project in our party that I hope shall lead to an associated group for this area of policy,

    and as someone who staunchly supports true public service broadcasting,

    I urge Lord Lester to think again , please !

    ” Redefine public service broadcasting , including breadth and quality of output … as media outlets multiply the current system of regulation is ineffective …channels could apply to be designated public service broadcasters …”

    This from the Liberal Democrat manifesto of 2001 ! Lord Lester , your concerns are not in proportion to the issues in hand ! Since then things have changed even more !

    Yet consider the context .The television licence fee is a draconian illiberal poll tax on viewing .Thirty five years ago ,Tony Benn , who viewed it as that himself , called for it to be abolished .

    The Green party do now .

    It is a flat tax , worse , a compulsory levy , with no reduction based on ability to pay for the unemployed or the disabled housebound who need their viewing more than most !

    It is the only such means of funding public service broadcasting in the western democratic world of major countries.

    It is unsupportable in principle and worse in practice .Tv licence detector vans patrolling the country like a police state ,to catch the poor, who might be watching the television they have paid for with their own money and are not allowed to watch unless forced to pay for one broadcaster , the BBC , whether they watch it or not.They have no choice !

    There is no other organisation in Britain that has guaranteed funding for a decade , no government department .Every other arts or cultural organisation is funded by taxes.

    Are those great cultural organisations not independent ?

    The BBC needs to be supported , about time it was .By becoming a proper public service broadcaster .Funded by us , through taxes , so mindful of its remit it backs drama and childrens programmes and documentaries, not Graham Nortons twenty five million fee for programmes that are not public service !

    Lord Lester you are a fine lawyer and Liberal Democrat .To institute in law a guarantee of inflation increase in the already illiberal and undemocratic licence fee , is unsupportable.

  • Julian Heather 12th May '16 - 12:52pm

    Given the appalling continuing bias of the BBC against the Liberal Democrats, with negligible coverage of the Party on both the news and current affairs programmes, I no longer have any respect for the BBC, having previously been a strong defender and advocate of the BBC. And BBC programming is no better than elsewhere. There is no longer any good reason for the BBC having a privileged position, with sole access to the licence fee.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th May '16 - 2:35pm

    I absolutely believe in the BBC – which doesn’t mean it hasn’t got huge faults, of course, only that it is far better than anything we could conceivably replace it with.
    But: the licence fee is, as Lorenzo graphically describes, an outrageous tax. Its enforcement is draconian, its flat-rate nature is profoundly regressive, its exemptions are unjustifiable, and there is no logic to it: not only do people who never use the BBC have to pay for it if they watch other live TV, but plenty of people who do use the BBC don’t have to pay for it if they’ve worked out that live TV is the only thing that they need to pay the licence fee for. (I’m not sure I need to pay it myself – I hardly ever watch TV at the moment of broadcast and it would be easy to reduce “hardly ever” to “never”.)
    As for the idea that this form of funding somehow provides independence from government interference — well, that was always logically nonsense and that’s being demonstrated now. The only thing that enables the BBC to remain relatively independent is its own institutional power, which is largely based on public acceptance and a certain political gentility whereby neither governing party has sought to abuse its power over the state broadcaster too much, for fear of what will happen when it’s out of office.
    The BBC should be funded from general taxation. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with a formula that allowed it to plan with somewhat more certainty and independence than a government department. (For example, a per-capita amount based on the last census, with inflation proofing, reviewable in exactly the same way as the licence fee always has been.)

  • Nick Collins 12th May '16 - 5:20pm

    @ Julian Heather: So because the BBC does not carry “news” about the LibDems when they are not newsworthy (which, currently they palpably are not,) you think it should be deprived of their license fee: not that your view is motivated by pique, of course. I hope you are not now, and that you do not in future find yourself, in any position of power, since you clearly are not fit to exercise it.

  • Not a fan of the BBC. There are plenty of free channels and news outlets. ITV manages without threatening single Mums with fines and such as like.

  • This illustrates why I am very concerned about the long term future of the BBC. It is currently mismanaged and in total denial about its biases. The licence fee doesn’t have a long term future yet the arguments from the BBC insiders is “more of the same will be the best in the world” and the likes of Anthony Leicester is “what ever the BBC management say.”

    The BBC could have a healthy future as a major player in a diverse media market, but to get there it needs an almighty kick up the ass. Probably removing most of the current senior management.

    Why has no-one suggested the license fee payers should elect half the board (with restrictions on no political figures able to stand) and the rest by independent commission. The BBC should start to emulate a large mutual or charity or it will become more like a nationalised industry and die a death of a thousand cuts.

  • The headline and final line of this article do not match up to the rest of the article, but that’s for the better; I cannot imagine anything worse than the headline and final line. Why the hero-worship, the veneration, of a state institution? It might be doing its job well, but at the end of the day it is a state institution, its relationship with private broadcasters is problematic and stifling, and one must always ask ‘What works best?’ not ‘Worship this idol and never question it and cry havoc if anyone else dares to’.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th May '16 - 1:50am

    Thanks for your comment and good sense

    Glenn, psi,WHS ,James

    Well done , do see my comments , we must rally to this view and be listened to , we are for REAL public broadcasting !

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