Brunel University London
On 27 March, the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee announced an inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting in order to examine that future ‘within the wider media and digital ecology, including funding, content and regulation of PSBs and how this compares with alternative subscription, streaming services and Freeview services’. Taken in conjunction with the Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport’s consultation on decriminalising TV licence evasion, which had been announced on 5 February, this signalled extremely torrid times ahead for the PSBs, and for the BBC in particular.
Why all this frenetic activity? The case against licence fee decriminalisation was made conclusively by David Perry QC in his 2015 TV Licence Fee Enforcement Review, and Ofcom had only recently delivered its five-year review of public service broadcasting, Small Screen: Big Debate.
The reasons are not exactly difficult to spot. On 5 March, in his first speech after being appointed, the new culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, had warned the BBC that it must ‘guard its unique selling point of impartiality in all of its output’, questioned whether it is ‘ready to embrace proper reform to ensure its long-term sustainability’ and stated that it ‘needs to be closer to, and understand the perspectives of, the whole of the United Kingdom and avoid providing a narrow urban outlook’.
Similarly, before he was elected Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, Julian Knight, had written an article (or rather a job application) in the Sunday Express, 19 January, in which he called the licence fee ‘a poll tax’ and ‘an anachronism in a world of choice’, and argued that ‘the main option is to move to a subscription service or allow people to opt out from the BBC’. He also accused the BBC of often ‘crushing’ private sector broadcasters by ‘using its awesome spending power’ as well as ‘spoon feeding’ its audiences with the ‘lop-sided views’ of the ‘west London media elites’.
Profound changes to public service broadcasting, then, are clearly very high on the political agenda. And in this respect, it’s highly revealing that among the questions which the PSB inquiry posed to those wishing to submit evidence were: ‘How would representation be protected if changes were made to the PSB model? How would the nations and regions be affected by changes to the PSB model?’ and: ‘How would changes to the PSB model affect the accessibility of services? How would a wholly internet-based service compare to the current PSB model?’
The problem is, however, that without knowing what these changes are, the questions are largely meaningless, and thus difficult, if not impossible, to answer.
A properly conducted inquiry would, of course, outline a range of possible changes to the PSB system and the reasons for them, and then ask respondents for their views on the consequences of such changes – in this case, for matters such as representation and accessibility. But this is absolutely not the way of this government, and it’s not exactly difficult to glean from evidence already in the public domain (and as quoted in this article) the nature of the changes that it has in mind, even though the call for evidence to the inquiry omitted to spell them out. The principle at work here is clearly Fire! Take aim! Ready!
Battle was joined again on 9 July, when the BBC announced that it was going ahead with its plan to end free TV licences for the over 75s, except for those on Pension Credit, after a two-month delay caused by the pandemic. (It should be noted that the 2019 Tory election manifesto stated that: ‘We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC’). This age group was exempted from paying the licence fee only in 2000, as a welfare benefit introduced by Labour, and successive governments recompensed the BBC for its lost income. However, in 2015, during the course of particularly fraught charter renewal proceedings, the BBC was heavily pressured by the Treasury to agree to take responsibility for the over 75s policy from 2020 onwards, in return for being allowed to increase the licence fee in line with inflation. It was estimated that if at this time the BBC decided to pay the fee for everybody over 75, the annual cost to the Corporation would be £750m.
The Corporation held a public consultation in November 2018 to decide whether the concession should continue after 2020, and, if so, in what form. 48% of respondents favoured retaining the existing scheme, 37% preferred reforming it and 17% wanted it abolished. In the event, the BBC decided that over 75s would have to pay for the licence unless they were receiving Pension Credit. Had it decided to pay the fee itself, it claimed that the ensuing funding cuts would have led to the closure of BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News channel, BBC Scotland, Radio 5 Live and various local radio stations.
Although opposition parties and charities such as Age UK pointed out that it was the government and not the BBC that was about to stop paying the benefit to the over 75s, and that it is not the BBC but the government that decides on who is eligible for Pension Credit, it was absolutely inevitable that it was the BBC that was blamed by Tory politicians and newspapers for immiserating pensioners. Thus at a Downing Street briefing, Oliver Dowden complained that he felt ‘let down’ by the BBC, in the Commons the digital minister, Matt Warman, called the BBC’s actions ‘deeply disappointing’ and Julian Knight condemned it as a ‘body blow’ to millions of British pensioners. Referring back to the 2015 charter negotiations he stated that: ‘This mess is a result of a poor decision struck by the outgoing director general [Sir Tony Hall] and Britain’s pensioners are having to pick up the cost’. Poor decision it may well have been, but it was one taken with the Treasury pointing a metaphorical gun at the very heart of the Corporation.
Such remarks were meat and drink to the Tory press, much of which also presented quotes from those criticising the government in such a way as to make it seem as if they were blaming the BBC. This was a particular speciality of the Express, which led the anti-BBC charge. Apart from making a thorough meal out of the above quotes from Tory MPs, it also ran an article by Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns on 12 July headed ‘Why BBC Bringing in Licence Fee for over 75s is Utterly Ludicrous and Tories NOT to Blame’. This called the BBC’s actions ‘completely ludicrous’ and accused the BBC of backtracking on the 2015 agreement (which it hadn’t). Most of the article, however, was not about the over 75s at all but instead ranted about the iniquity of anyone having to pay for a broadcaster with an allegedly liberal bias. In a strained attempt at ‘humour’, Jenkyns suggested that: ‘Maybe a change is in order from Auntie – to “anti”-free speech (unless you agree with their views), “anti”-common sense” and “anti”-quated’.
The article concluded: ‘The compulsory TV licence fee should come to an end, or at least no-payment should be decriminalised’, and this link to decriminalisation was also made in an article in the same paper on 10 July headlined ‘Boris DEMANDS Better Service from BBC as Beeb Starts Charging over 75s TV Licence Fee’. This quotes Johnson’s deputy spokesman as being ‘bitterly disappointed by the BBC’s decision not to extend the free licence beyond August’, but, more significantly, it notes that he ‘warned the BBC no decision had been made on decriminalising not paying the licence fee’ and that he mentioned that 150,000 responses to the consultation had been received. It then quotes him to the effect that: ‘We are assessing these and will respond in due course’.
One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see this as a thinly veiled threat, particularly when taken in the context of the various remarks made by Tory MPs quoted in this article. It is also important to remember that Johnson’s most powerful advisor, Dominic Cummings, has long been a sworn enemy of the BBC. Thus when he was director of the New Frontiers Foundation he called for ‘the end of the BBC in its current form’ and argued that the ‘privileged closed world of the BBC needs to be turned upside down and its very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign that involves bringing out whistleblowers armed with internal memos and taped conversations of meetings’, as well as developing ‘the web networks scrutinising the BBC and providing information to commercial rivals with an interest in undermining the BBC’s credibility’. (Not that the BBC’s enemies in the press need any encouraging in their endless campaigns against it). He also called for ‘the creation of a Fox News equivalent / talk radio shows / bloggers etc to shift the centre of gravity’.
These remarks may have been made in 2004, but nothing in Cummings’s bitterly hostile, contemptuous and attritional attitude to the BBC (and indeed to public service broadcasting in general) since assuming his present role suggests that he has changed his mind in the very slightest. However, even without Cummings’s malign influence, anti-BBC prejudice would be hard-wired into the present government, which has been brutally purged of the kinds of MPs who supported PSB in general and the BBC in particular. In such circumstances, it would be very surprising if the BBC’s decision on the licence fee for the over 75s is not ruthlessly weaponised by the government in what appears to be its determined campaign to decriminalise non-payment of that fee. It has been estimated that this will cost the BBC £300m a year, which will have a devastating effect on an output already severely damaged by the effects of the pandemic. But that, of course, is precisely what the BBC’s enemies want – amongst whose number, disturbingly, indeed shockingly, must be included the present government.