One of the biggest threats to the BBC’s independence is interference by government – any government. That is why I believe that the BBC must be structurally reinforced by making it into the country’s biggest mutual. First, a mutual structure would strengthen the BBC Trust’s hand in relation to the executive, making it absolutely clear that the Trust is the cheerleader for the licence fee payer. Second, as long as members of the Trust are appointed via the Culture Department, the question of independence will remain. A stronger Trust, backed by licence fee payers’ support, could provide a bulwark against those who seek to put undue political influence on the BBC or cut corners under pressure from the rest of the broadcasting market. Third, it would give the public more of a say over programmes and direction. It is a simple principle that, if we pay for the BBC, the institution should be more accountable to us. Dame Tessa Jowell is Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, and a former secretary of state for culture.
The BBC must be privatised so that it competes on a level playing field with Sky, CNN and the many other broadcasters that flourish without government subsidy. Mutualisation, with a share distribution to the entire UK population, might seem to be a step in the right direction. But it is the wrong kind of privatisation. In the global marketplace now emerging, the BBC must not be beholden only to a British audience. With English now the global language of business and culture, London should be the world capital of broadcasting. As BBC director-general Lord Hall said in a speech earlier this month, BBC iPlayer should “help the UK’s amazing array of arts and science institutions to reach new audiences across the globe”. In the digital era, the license fee is obsolete and must be replaced with market payment mechanisms (subscription, pay-per-view, advertising). Professor Tim Congdon is a prominent economist. He will be discussing the case for privatising the BBC at a New Culture Forum event on 12 November.