Three-D Issue 25: The case for a Licence Fee Body

5Colin Browne
Chairman, VLV Board of Trustees

The future of the BBC is too important to be left to politicians. We all fund the BBC through the licence fee, so it is vital that citizens and consumers have the opportunity to contribute to the debate about its future.

The previous licence fee settlement in 2010, conducted in secrecy over the course of a weekend, resulted in a shabby settlement which we believe was not in the interests of licence payers or, indeed, of the BBC itself. The agreement undermined the established principle that the licence fee should fund, almost uniquely, the BBC’s services to viewers and listeners in the United Kingdom. Other pet political projects were thrown into the pot. ‘Top slicing’ of this kind has a greater long-term impact on the BBC’s finances than the level of settlement; and it undermines the very clear relationship between the BBC and the people who fund it.

The VLV therefore welcomed calls from the BBC Trust and from the Culture Media and Support Select Committee that there should be an open and inclusive debate about the BBC’s future, including its funding. It was therefore shocking and disgraceful that the decision to make BBC take on responsibility for funding free licences for the over-75s was taken with no public consultation of any kind.

Apart from the serious damage to the BBC’s finances, the real concern is that decisions taken in this way undermine both the reality and perception of the BBC’s independence, at home and abroad; and make it appear an arm of Government.

The VLV has therefore proposed the establishment of an independent statutory body to determine the level of future settlements. The Licence Fee Body would comprise a chair and other members who have the requisite expertise and knowledge and are independent of government, of the BBC and of other media organizations. It would consult with the public and recommend a level for the licence fee. The Secretary of State would have a duty to lay this recommendation before Parliament. VLV has sponsored the preparation of a draft Bill to give effect to this proposal.

The VLV believes that the immense contribution the BBC makes not only to culture and arts in the UK, but even more importantly to the broader public good, is dependent on its services being universally available throughout the UK, free at the point of reception.

Off course, changes in technology and in the market place mean that it is right to have an in-depth discussion on the future of the BBC and the way it is funded.

The BBC does sometimes seem to have an overweening ambition to do everything for everyone. It needs to innovate, stimulate and challenge the market, not crowd out the competition. But it most certainly does need to provide something for everyone, otherwise that principle of universality will have been lost and with it something very special in the life of the nation.

So let us have that public debate on its future; but let that debate be informed by reason and facts and not by prejudice or vested interests.

Posted by Einar Thorsen