Monday, 16 November 2009

Top-slicing the BBC

This week the government will be discussing the future funding of the BBC, as will be announced in the forthcoming Queen's Speech on Wednesday. This was also something suggested in the final draft of the Digital Britain report. You can read the BBC's response to these proposed changes here (.pdf 57kb). I'm not keen on the idea of government top-slicing the current BBC licence fee as it sends mixed messages to the public about where responsibility lies when audience members feel aggrieved on the back of specific programmes. It also undermines the role of public service broadcasting more generally.

In an email discussion with colleagues at the University of Sunderland about this subject Professor Andrew Crisell, the esteemed broadcast historian and author of several books in the area, had this to say:
The purpose of a public service broadcaster like the BBC is to overcome the limitations of the commercial system of competition and serve everybody, including those groups who are too small to interest advertisers. So if the government introduces competition into public service provision, this means that it either doesn't understand what public service broadcasting is or doesn't give a damn about it anyway. Competitive public service broadcasting is a contradiction in terms and will result in the same kind of audience chasing that already characterises the commercial sector.
There are a number of campaign groups mobilising in support of the BBC like the Citizen's Coalition for Public Service Broadcasting, which has the backing of several high profile media scholars. You can follow them on Twitter or join the Facebook group. You can also express your dissatisfaction with the new proposals by contacting your MP. The campaign group 38 Degrees has a handy template and email form on their site which enables people to have their say and petition their local MP. I've already contact David Miliband on this matter - the text of the letter can be found below:
Dear MP,

I hear that the government is considering including plans to topslice the BBC in the Queen's Speech. I'm concerned that this is a threat to the BBC's long-term future, and will undermine its independence. One advantage of the current licensing of the BBC is that the public can clearly identify the correct avenue of complaint when confronted with an emotive issue. A mixed method of funding in which commercial bodies receive licence fee money complicates this relationship.

The example of the funding support given over to the Digital Switchover Help Scheme and the subsequent underspend should not function to act as a precedent that undermines the licence fee paying public's relationship with the BBC. This example is frequently used to support the top-slicing argument, but lacks adequate weight. This was an extraordinary use of the public's money to drive technical innovation, new platforms for public and commercial content creation and improve audience choice. This benefited all involved when commercial sector had failed to provide a viable platform.

Given the global prominence of the BBC brand in an field where very few other British success stories exist, it seems counterproductive to siphon funding away. If the proposed top-slicing goes ahead the danger is such that future governments will be able to leverage commercial and political pressure against the BBC in a perpetual 'casus belli' which may undermine one of the democratic functions served by the Corporation. There is no guarantee that the percentage of top slicing proposed today will not increase over time - this has happened in other countries which have adopted similar models.

Many other suggestions have been made for ways of funding public service content made outside of the BBC, without top-slicing. Please contact Gordon Brown and Ben Bradshaw urgently and ask them to take a fresh look at these alternatives, rather than push ahead with top-slicing the BBC. Please also sign EDM 1891 to put on the record that you oppose top-slicing.

Please let me know when you've done all this, or if not please let me know why not.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Jewitt
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Edit: I've had a response back from my MP. It was pretty quick - less than 30 minutes after I sent the email it had arrived. The reason for that is my MP is a member of the cabinet so does not sign Early Day Motions:
Strict Parliamentary rules state that members of the cabinet do not sign EDM's. However, I have passed a copy of your email on to Ben Bradshaw's department so they are aware of your concerns
Ben Bradshaw is not my favourite MP - he has already levelled criticism at the way in which the BBC is funded so I suspect my argument will fall on deaf ears. This is why your voice counts even more.

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