- Alan Smith discusses the organization and finance of the BBC
This article looks at the BBC in three parts (I studied Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Book 1 for O-Level and, sometimes, it shows). The three parts are: First, do we still need the BBC? Secondly, who should control the BBC? And thirdly, how should the BBC be financed?
Economic liberals would argue that, just as there is no need for a national, state-owned daily newspaper, there is no need for a state-owned broadcaster. Whereas in the early years of wireless and television the limits of the available technology prevented anyone who so chose to set up a wireless or TV broadcasting station, today there are not the same limitations and so the BBC should be privatized, possibly in several constituent parts, and left to compete in the private sector. I would argue, on the other hand, that the best place to start from is where we are and that we should seek to improve the BBC in ways that would make it generally acceptable.
The next question is to consider the management of the BBC. Two models can be discarded immediately. The first is control by the government of the day in which the BBC is run as a Department of State, the editorial content follows the government line, and the cultural view propagated by the BBC is that which predominates in the governing party. The second is a totally independent oligarchy supplied with public money to run the BBC, but who acknowledge no duty to account for their actions to anyone outside the organization and who recruit staff from people like themselves.
I should like to offer the following model, which avoids direct control by the government of the day while making the BBC to some degree responsive to public opinion. Set up a BBC Council of, say, 60 people, elected by the House of Commons on a time-phased basis, using a system of proportional representation. Every five years, say, the House would elect 20 people from among its Members to serve on the BBC Council for fifteen years; MPs, once elected to the BBC Council, would retain their positions there even if they lost their seats in the House. Such a system would represent as far as is possible public opinion over the previous ten to fifteen years, providing some degree of public input to the management of the BBC. The BBC Council would, in turn, appoint a Board of Governors who would report to the Council from time to time.
The final question is to consider how the BBC is financed. I would recommend that the BBC should be financed out of general taxation. Initially, the BBC would be guaranteed an income for, say, the next ten years based on the current income from licence fees index-linked to cover the effects of inflation. Thereafter, each year the government would propose the amount for the year after the ten already agreed, once again index-linked. The discussion would be based, among other things, on the views of the BBC Council. Under normal conditions, the amount allocated to the BBC over the next ten years could be increased but not decreased.
But what about the licence fee? Here I must declare a non-interest. I have reached the age of 75 and am no longer required to pay for a TV licence. For many years, the TV licence in my household had been in my late mother’s name so we were not required to pay for a TV licence for some time: this is another nonsensical aspect of the system.
In my opinion, the TV licence fee is an idea whose time has passed. In the early days of wireless broadcasting, when few people had wirelesses, it made sense to finance the BBC by a charge on those who had wireless sets. In the initial days of television in Britain, when the only people in Britain who could receive television signals were those within range of Alexandra Palace, it would have been grossly unfair to finance television broadcasting from general taxation. However, now that the overwhelming majority of the population can receive BBC television programmes from terrestrial transmitters, when the same programmes can be received by satellite and cable channels, and when BBC programmes and others can be downloaded from websites to home computers, the possession of a working television set in a property no longer provides a rational basis for a tax.
Nevertheless, the fundamental argument against the TV licence is that it is a form of poll tax. As Mrs C.F. Alexander might have put it:
‘The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
Will pay the TV licence fee,
Regardless of estate.’