Friday 14 February 2020 4:31 am

Don’t frame it as a front in the culture war, BBC reform can be in everyone’s interests

Emma Revell is head of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

With the announcement last week of a consultation on decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee, ministers boycotting core programmes following accusations of bias, and veiled threats from the government about its potential demise, fans of the BBC would be forgiven for thinking that their treasured broadcaster is under attack. 

But by framing this as a culture war, does the government risk undermining the case for BBC reform?

There is no doubt that the BBC has some institutional political biases — show me a public sector behemoth that doesn’t — but it appears to some that the Conservatives are enacting a vendetta against a media outlet with which they disagree. 

Such behaviour risks turning away members of the public who support reform but also think highly of the BBC and the valuable role it plays in British’s cultural life. 

Thus moves to fully privatise the service and suggestions of content supported by adverts are met with horror. Only 25 per cent of Brits want a privatised BBC, whereas 58 per cent prefer public sector ownership. Yet at the same time, 74 per cent want to see the licence fee abolished — with young people more in favour than older generations, but a majority in support overall.

How to square the circle? Crucially, the case needs to be made that reform is in everyone’s interests. 

Professor Philip Booth’s recent report New Vision sets out how the BBC could be transformed into a subscriber-owned mutual for the benefit of viewers, non-viewers, and the corporation itself.

The small but growing number of people who want to watch other live TV channels but don’t use BBC services would be free from the obligation to pay for them, while the legions of Strictly and Doctor Who fans could continue to subscribe. 

Freed from the restrictions currently placed upon it as a public service broadcaster, the BBC could create tiers of membership, including those who only watch on mobile devices and those watching overseas. The new BBC could decide to offer cheaper rates for over-75s or under-25s, for example, and one-off fees for temporary or partial access. 

The BBC could also seek to provide services to the millions of Brits abroad, and the global English-speaking world, who would love to access its content but are locked out or forced to wait for months for shows to be screened on regional platforms like BBC America.

A more independent BBC would be better able to reflect its viewership. The current corporation chases demographics that are moving away at lightning speeds — whether that’s younger viewers only watching programmes online, or couples settling down for a Netflix binge rather than switching on the traditional soaps. 

This model could be made to work for both the BBC and viewers of all demographics. So instead of focusing on the broadcaster’s perceived biases, proponents of reform would do better to highlight the unfairness of people paying for services they don’t use, as well as the benefits for the BBC itself in gaining more independence.

This isn’t a culture war — it’s an opportunity to turn the BBC into something even better.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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