Should BBC licence fee-payers foot £150k 'Sachsgate' fine?

by Stephen Tall on April 5, 2009

No, says Don Foster, the Lib Dems’ shadow culture, media and sports secretary, following media regulator Ofcom’s announcement on Friday that it was fining the BBC £150,000 following the infamous prank calls made by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross on Mr Brand’s Radio 2 show:

This money should come out of Jonathan Ross’s salary so that broadcasting does not suffer.”

Hmmm. Sorry, Don, but you’ve not convinced me your statement is anything other than populist drivel.

Of course Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross bear ultimate resonsibility for their potty-mouths. But what they said was broadcast by the BBC, and the Beeb must bear its share of responsibility.

So let’s start by referring to the Ofcom report, and find out why they decided to levy this £150k fine on the Beeb: it was because the regulator identified “no fewer than six flaws within the Radio 2 compliance systems”, most significantly that the BBC did not appoint its own executive producer to take overall editorial responsibility for the Russell Brand show. By outsourcing production to Mr Brand’s own company, the Corporation had in effect washed its hands of responsibility of a programme which the BBC itself had identified as ‘high risk’, and which had (in its earlier BBC 6 Music incarnation) already breached broadcasting rules just a few months previously.

I’m all for individual responsibility, and both Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross have held up their hands, and apologised publicly: Brand resigned, and Ross was suspended for three months. But individual responsibility doesn’t both start and stop with presenters. It pertains, too, to their editors and managers, who are also paid by the BBC licence fee to keep a watchful eye on their talent. Ofcom puts it rather well:

Comedy in particular has a tradition of challenging and even deliberately flouting boundaries of taste. Whilst such programming must have room for innovation and creativity, it does not have unlimited licence. Individual performers and presenters may sometimes overstep the line. However, it is the responsibility of broadcasters operating in creative environments to have robust systems in place and apply them so as to ensure compliance with the Code, and specifically in this case so that individuals and members of the public are provided adequate protection from offensive and harmful material and unwarranted infringements of privacy. Creative risk is therefore part of the BBC’s public service role but so is risk management.

I’m disappointed by Don’s response for the Lib Dems. It is tempting and all-too-easy to jump on the anti-Ross bandwagon, and to claim you’re standing up for the poor BBC licence fee-payer. I’m sure the point will earn a cheap round of applause wherever it’s uttered.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last six months – from broadcasting to banking – it is that institutions which wish to maintain their reputations need to take far greater responsibility for their own collective actions. It’s simply not enough to scapegoat individuals for the failings of management. Yes, there needs to be more individual responsibility in society; but let’s not forget the importance of corporate responsibility as well. The two go hand in hand.

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Between this and the minimum alcohol pricing, Don doesn’t seem to be covering liberalism in glory. And there was the swearing on tv thing. Populist and illiberal each time.

by Alix Mortimer on April 5, 2009 at 11:33 am. Reply #

It’s an interesting argument. But I still don’t see why I and the rest of the public should have to pay the fine through the licence fee.

Perhaps it would be more reasonable to make the individuals responsible pay personally out of their own pockets. Both performers and BBC staff.

by John on April 5, 2009 at 11:54 am. Reply #

John – it would matter less if the public had a choice over whether or not they paid the BBC licence fee. At the moment, though, party policy (and, I suspect, the majority of party members) are in favour of this illiberal poll tax.

by Stephen Tall on April 5, 2009 at 12:01 pm. Reply #

Didn’t we jump the populism shark with “Life should mean Life” ?

Surely after that you can’t feel the pain anymore and its all just numb ?

Stephen makes an interesting argument however he seems to avoid the central point. Government or Quango fines for other Quangos over poor service charge the tax payer not the people who made the boo boo.

In this case I think Stephen misses his strongest argument in that by missing 3 months salary ross has effectively already paid this fine several times over.

by David Morton on April 5, 2009 at 12:10 pm. Reply #

Why can’t the fine be paid jointly between the BBC and Ross and Brand?

by Thomas on April 5, 2009 at 1:20 pm. Reply #

John: I don’t see why the public should have to pay the licence fee at all.

I pay £12 a month or whatever so that I can watch 30 minutes of BBC Breakfast every morning, uninterrupted by advertising. Worth it? No.

by Chris Keating on April 5, 2009 at 1:25 pm. Reply #

The beeb’s systems failed and allowed the tripe to be broadcast – Ross and Brand and the responsible officials should have been sacked.

It is absolutely pointless ‘fining’ the bbc in this way, although punishing it by knocking a proprtion off of next year’s licence fee money does seem attractive.

Better still, we should try to dump the outdated licence – which is just a tax – and the heavy-handed bureaucracy we also have to fund to collect it.

by john on April 5, 2009 at 1:28 pm. Reply #

Yes agree with John, the amount of this or any other fine (eg the phone line scandal) should result in a reduction in the licence fee so that licence payers and not the government benefits.

by Kevin on April 5, 2009 at 5:47 pm. Reply #

How many licence fee payers in the UK? Say 15 million, and I suspect that’s a low estimate – each licence fee payer is paying a penny towards the fee. And has technically “saved” about 10p on Ross’s salary during his suspension, so hey, we’re in profit!

The law as it is promotes collective responsibility. If Ofcom fined performers (or even individual editors or channel heads) then there would be less reason for the BBC to bother about compliance and responsible broadcasting – and remember they’re currently in a position where they’re being forced to worry about “value for money” above all else – and more encouragement for a culture of blaming the lowest-ranking person you can get away with.

by Caz on April 5, 2009 at 9:59 pm. Reply #

It just goes to show you can’t be too careful.

by Biscit on April 6, 2009 at 2:42 pm. Reply #

Thomas- Brand and Ross have already been punished. Ross was suspended (and the figures oft quoted are his budget not salary) while Brand effectively lost his job.

This fine is for the BBC for their part in the matter.

If I had my way I would fine each and every one of the people who complained without having heard the programme. Those that didn’t care what had happened but wanted to stick it to celebrities they hated- I would fine triple.

Vile people.

by Biscit on April 6, 2009 at 2:50 pm. Reply #

I’d still like to hear 1 good arguement for paying the licence fee at all.
If I want to buy a loaf of bread from Tesco I don’t expect to have to pay Asda.

by Phil on April 6, 2009 at 2:51 pm. Reply #

There is another issue here, which is that the BBC cannot be effectively fined. Like all tax-funded bodies (and the licence fee is, in reality, a tax) it simply passes the cost on to the taxpayer.

Nobody in the BBC loses anything and there are no shareholders to feel the pinch, so the only real effect is of naming-and-shaming.

by Tom Papworth on April 6, 2009 at 3:20 pm. Reply #

Chis Keating said:

“I pay £12 a month or whatever so that I can watch 30 minutes of BBC Breakfast every morning, uninterrupted by advertising. Worth it? No.”

If you watch 30 minutes of BBC tv per day, that adds up to approximately 15 hours of BBC tv per month. This is roughly the equivalent of 7-10 trips to the cinema, or maybe 4/5 DVD films (that’s if you watch the bonus content). Using that comparison, £12 seems like a bargain. Never mind that you get all the other non-BBC channels for free.

The whole point of the BBC is to broadcast programmes which are unprofitable. One example: what other channel would’ve spent the best part of a month or two having programmes about the life and work of Charles Darwin?

by Alex Deam on April 6, 2009 at 9:47 pm. Reply #

If that’s the only BBC you watch Chris then scrap the telly and watch it online.

There is also a lot of material originally paid for by the BBC elsewhere on satellite.

That said, even for that minimal use it equates well costwise to buying a daily newspaper.

by Hywel on April 6, 2009 at 11:17 pm. Reply #

Well done Don Foster.

There is serious material broadcast on channels other than the BBC.

So, I favour getting rid of the BBC or moving to a subscription service.

If people really want the service, let them subscribe to it.

I do not see why I should subside BBC programmes that give free publicity to psychic frauds, pay huge amounts of money to Jonathan Ross or tell you how to make your own medicine whilst being very careful to only use it with conventional medicine.

I am sure that Heroes would find a home on a commercial channel, just as Hustle repeats are doing

Alex’s idea that if you take away the BBC you will lose 5 DVDs worth of content is simplistic. It fails to recognise that I may get much less than that out of the BBC. Let me choose the DVDs I wish to buy

by Voter on April 8, 2009 at 11:12 pm. Reply #

If we genuinely want to balance liberty, equality and community, and to free people from poverty, ignorance and conformity, then the BBC deserves 100% support. The benefits of the BBC far outweigh its disadvantages. Of course it has its faults (and should pay the fine) but I worry when I hear Lib Dems echoing the Tory mantras about ‘poll taxes’ and ‘paying Asda to buy from Tesco’. The myth that the BBC is no good is surely propounded by those who wish to make money by making inferior TV if they can get rid of the BBC. Lib Dems should not be taken in.

We have far better TV here than in the United States, and ad-free ‘socialised TV’ (as some over there would call it) is the reason. For example, as a parent of small children, I’d far rather they watch high quality CBeebies than much of the commercial-ridden nonsense on other channels.

We should remember our party’s roots are in democratic ‘socialism’ as well as in liberalism. Otherwise we will lose our most loyal supporters.

by Terry on April 9, 2009 at 3:33 pm. Reply #

I may be wrong but I believe that the television show “24” comes from an advert-driven environment and 24 is quality as far as I am concerned.

Maybe there are demands that the commercial world cannot meet but I would want to see the specific argument made rather than the BBC surviving by default.

The claim that the commercial world cannot deliver in general is put to rest by the existence of “24”.

by Voter on April 9, 2009 at 9:21 pm. Reply #

After 14 years of happy and conscience-free license evasion I finally ceased my criminal activities in January, and got rid of my TV completely.

I only hope I can give the Capita goons the run around long enough to cost them a fraction of this absurd fine before they give up and stop trying to harass me.

by iainm on April 9, 2009 at 10:24 pm. Reply #

24? Never watch it, I’m afraid.

Of course there are some good programs which come out of a commercial driven environment, but there is also a lot of utter pap. Standards overall would be a lot lower without the Beeb – as I said above, you only have to look at the States to see that. (Expand PBS, I say!)

by Terry on April 9, 2009 at 10:58 pm. Reply #

The show “24” is from the US so saying you only have to look at the US does not work for me.

As for standards, the BBC seems to be in controversy precisely because it is disregarding standards and chasing ratings.

Should the license fee really be funding low standards like this?

by Voter on April 10, 2009 at 6:36 pm. Reply #

“as I said above, you only have to look at the States to see that.”

Plenty of quality TV from the states:
South Park
Ally McBeal
The West Wing
The Soprano’s
Prison Break
The Simpsons

And that’s without putting any thought into coming up with a list.

by Hywel on April 10, 2009 at 6:55 pm. Reply #

I agree with Stephen Tall. The licence fee is an outrageous imposition on viewers in our country,and should be abolished forthwith.Viewers are expected to pay for overpaid,not necessarily talented people and executives.The BBC general service has deteriorated over the years. At one time they would assist the public with enquiries about music on past programmes. Now they say they cannot do this because of the cost ! Absolute nonsense. Fine ’em all, and remove the fee !

by Barry Kingsley on April 10, 2009 at 10:45 pm. Reply #

Can someone say why it is policy to keep the fee?

A previous discussion on LDV had a link to a poll with over 60% not approving the current situation:

Any plans to address this at the party conference? The poll suggests it might be a vote-winner (and of course it is liberal)

by Voter on April 11, 2009 at 3:15 pm. Reply #

For clarity, I should say that I am referring to the YouGuv poll.

by Voter on April 11, 2009 at 3:19 pm. Reply #

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