I would like to believe in public service broadcasting. Some part of me is heir to the grand tradition of Lord Reith. I helped educate myself by listening to Radio 4 or the Home Service. At its best the BBC can still produce interesting documentaries, good discussions and good educational programmes.
The idea of public service broadcasting has however been much stretched. Aware of the need to keep popular consent for its poll tax to pay for it, the BBC has long decided to undertake a lot of popular programming which competes directly with free to air commercial tv. Can we really call soaps, old films, light entertainments, pop music, quiz shows and home improvement advertorials public service broadcasting, distinct from other broadcasting?How do they differ from what free to air commercial tv serves up? If the programme is very popular, then financing it will be easy without a poll tax. Of course people want popular programmes, but they get them paid for by ads on commercial tv, and paid for by subscription on other channels.
The case for tax based subsidy is clearest for the World Service. Part of the UK’s presence in the world is to provide news, documentaries and educational programmes for world audience. I have no objection to this being part of the government’s budget – maybe part of Overseas Aid or the Foreign Office costs. The World Service can be an important ally and source of information for people in oppressive regimes, and for all those worldwide wanting a good English language source.
The first task of the review should be to establish a modern definition of public service broadcasting. Then they need to decide how much of it we want.
The review also needs to look at the differing ways people can now gain access to BBC content. All the time BBC material is free to air there remains an issue on how to collect the revenue owing from those who manage to watch or listen to it. They may conclude that it will become too difficult to make people pay a licence fee, when there is plenty of non BBC content around, and when delayed BBC content may be available free anyway.
Perhaps the most important issue is competition. The large and subsidised website service offered by the BBC may be making it difficult for other providers to develop their offer. BBC publications has an impact on other publishers of material. The Review may like to ring fence the subsidised areas more, and make sure that the commercial parts of the BBC are free standing and have to compete on level terms.