Comment: The BBC is under threat

The settlement for the BBC in the spending review was rushed and ill-thought out. The result may burden the corporation with costs it – and the country – cannot afford.

By Ian Murray MP

Ever since the BBC’s inception in 1922, it has played a major role in this country. The public not only admire the BBC; they trust the corporation to deliver real value and quality while they watch and listen to its channels or, more recently, surf its online content.

We must, however, protect what the BBC provides and how it is paid for. The licence fee enables our national public-sector broadcaster to provide 10 TV channels, 10 UK-wide network radio stations, 46 nations’ and local radio services, regional options, interactive services on BBC iPlayer, and high definition television, as well as the ever-popular BBC websites which attract 22 million unique users in the UK every week. On top of all that output, the BBC is the engine room of the country’s hugely important creative industries.

Let us consider the value of the licence fee. It costs about 40p per day, which is less than half the cost of many daily newspapers and about the same as the price of a pint of milk or a first-class stamp. It costs less than the price of half a loaf of bread, 20 times less than the average cinema ticket, and a 25th of the cost of joining the Liberal Democrats. The licence fee also enables the BBC to invest in the UK as a whole, with a commitment to 50% of network production coming from outside London by 2016 as well as a commitment to the BBC regions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Most importantly, the BBC delivers a significant contribution to the creative industries and the UK economy. Britain’s creative sector, which accounts for about 6% of the UK’s GDP, can make a significant contribution to economic growth and employment. Having grown at a faster rate than the general economy in recent years, the creative industries are now expected to grow by 4% on average in the next five years. The beneficial impact of the BBC to that is some £7.6 billion a year, including more than £150 million through BBC Worldwide.

The BBC is a globally respected brand and it has been described as a national treasure, which is why we should always stand up for it as a friend, although a critical friend. The BBC should not be immune from reform or cuts at this time but that reform process has to be done through negotiation and with respect for what the BBC delivers and the people-its staff-who deliver the service on behalf of us all.

The outcome for the BBC from the CSR has shown contempt for the corporation, and the opportunity has been lost truly to change the organisation in the context of a new digital age, changing and fast-moving markets and, significantly, shrinking budgets across the sector in programme making.

The BBC also has a responsibility to consolidate its own activities within the continual pursuit of excellence alongside an honest examination of the role of both the BBC and, more importantly, public sector broadcasting. The final settlement for the BBC through the comprehensive spending review is yet another example of the Government’s undue haste. The CSR deal for the BBC was put together in 72 hours. It was a dubious deal, with Ministers embarking on a strategy to intimidate the BBC into accepting whatever came its way. Why? Because the outrageous proposal that the BBC take responsibility for free TV licences for the over-75s hung over it like a guillotine. What would be next? The licence fee paying for the winter fuel allowance, child benefit or perhaps even the Prime Minister’s new personal photographer?

That threat ensured that the BBC would grab the deal given to it through the CSR quickly and with both hands. Let us look at the settlement it was given. It includes a freeze in the licence fee for the remainder of the charter period and the BBC taking on funding for the BBC World Service, BBC Monitoring and the Welsh language channel S4C. In addition, the BBC will be supporting the Secretary of State’s pet project, the new City TV, through a £25 million ring-fenced partnership fund. It will also be given responsibility for delivering broadband services. All in all, there is a £340 million bill alongside a 16% real-terms reduction in licence fee income over the period.

This “delicious” deal, as the Prime Minister described it, was so hastily contrived that it prevented proper consultation and debate with licence payers, stakeholders and, most importantly, BBC staff themselves to the extent that we are left with no real way of knowing the true impact on the BBC. Will it affect the quality of programming? Will it mean the BBC stopping services? Will it mean significant job cuts? Will it damage the independence of the BBC and the BBC World Service? Will the board of S4C take the government to court, due to it not being consulted about its funding being transferred to the BBC?

Conversely, this rushed deal has also restricted the opportunity to keep the pressure on the BBC to continue on its programme of reform in terms of bureaucracy and excessive executive pay. The BBC was entering into a new culture of transparency and accountability-a programme that was, on its own measurement, to save £2 billion by 2014.

The comprehensive spending review reduced the BBC to the status of just another arm of government where the veil of deficit was used to disguise rash decisions free of proper scrutiny or credible analysis, leaving the question of where the axe will fall. We have seen the response of the public to decisions on axing BBC services-we need merely look back to earlier this year, with the campaigns to save the Asian Network and 6 Music. Those services were seen by many as benchmarks of diversity, equality and innovation in public sector broadcasting.

The future of the BBC is a matter of significant public interest. Opposition members will stand up for the BBC, for what it provides for the cultural make-up of this country and for the contribution it makes to the UK economy. It projects the best of the UK abroad and is undoubtedly a national treasure that is well loved, respected and should be protected for the future at all costs.

Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South.

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