Good telly: too important to be left to the BBC

by Stephen Tall on March 2, 2005

Tessa Jowell today launched her Green Paper review of the BBC’s Royal Charter. It’s a shame the document’s colour indicates naïve assumptions rather than fresh thinking. All political parties, and many commentators, make the mistake of equating the BBC with public service broadcasting: they are not one and the same.

I am a firm believer in the positive benefits of competition, and I don’t believe we should leave ‘good telly’ solely in the hands of the BBC. Plenty of high-quality programmes – mainstream and minority – see the light of day on commercial channels too (though you’re more likely to find examples on ITV3 than ITV1). For instance, Channel 4’s ‘Torture’ season is addressing a serious, topical and important issue in an original, enlightening (and enlightened) way. In similar vein, though markedly contrasting style, ‘Bremner, Bird & Fortune’ returns this Sunday night to insert more pins in voodoo pols.

Here’s a challenge: if you’ve a TV guide to hand, flick through the listings for the next week on BBC1 and Channel 4 – then tell me which you think is providing a better range of high-quality programmes. It’s a toughie, isn’t it? Dispatches or wall-to-wall Celeb Fame Academy? (And, yes, I know it’s for charity, but please… I love reality TV: even my brains are bleeding from the over-exposure).

The Government’s reforms do nothing to address the real issues facing public service broadcasting:
* the need for the BBC to justify its licence fee by ensuring maximum audience reach, even when this means sacrificing programme quality;
* and the plight of the commercial terrestrial channels, which are attempting to maintain some shred of public service credibility in the face of increasing multi-channel digital competition both for viewers and advertising revenue.

So what do I think Tessa Jowell should have said? Well, try this for starters:

“Broadcasting policy is based on two principles. First, that that public funding remains a necessary corrective to market failure. And, secondly, that standards in public service broadcasting can be improved by governments helping to frame the market conditions in which rival channels compete on a level playing field to provide high quality programming. The goal of these two principles is to promote a plurality of channels whose healthy rivalries ratchet up this quality.

“I will, therefore, abolish the BBC licence fee, that anachronism of a bygone broadcasting era when terrestrial television reigned supreme, and digital and broadband services were the stuff of Tomorrow’s World. It is a regressive poll tax which, each year, condemns tens of thousands of the poorest people to jail for non-payment. Bluntly, those who can least afford it are helping to subsidise the cultural pleasure of those who can. The BBC will, of course, continue to flourish as a subscription-funded broadcaster, paid for by those who actively choose to watch its programmes – just as Japan’s NHK is, or America’s superb HBO.

“I will establish a £1bn contestable public service broadcasting fund, paid for by taxing the turnover of broadcasters, and by ring-fencing the current costs of licence fee collection. Any independent production company can bid for matched funding to help make viable the business proposition of public service programming.

“My reforms will, by abolishing the licence fee, advance the cause of social justice; and, by creating fairer market conditions in which all channels can compete equally for funding to make high quality programmes, they will advance the cause of public service broadcasting.”