Wednesday, 7 October 2015


AUSTIN MITCHELL,former MP Grimsby Former presenter 24 Hours and Midweek.Former Chair All Party Parliamentary Media Group 

This submission is made on a priori grounds rather than answers for the specific questions posed .These  are for more expert evaluation by audience researchers programme makers and viewers.. The  issue should be decided on grounds of principle rather than niggling quibbles on side issues.

The central purpose of both the financial arrangements for the BBC and the charter renewal decisions  must be to defend and maintain the public service role of the corporation That public service role is defined in the charter.It should not  be  viewed as a requirement to do only serious public service and minority programmes. There is an important audience for these and the BBC provides more of them than any other organisation but if it becomes the only or main form of provision by the BBC audiences will fall This will then become an argument for reducing the licence fee on the grounds that the corporation is not serving all the people.

So let us be clear.The duty of the BBC is quality. That means the provision of  quality programmes of all kinds and the maintenance of high standards at all levels of provision and in all areas of competition.It follows therefore that the B BC should compete at every level whether it be news,current affairs,drama ,entertainment,24 hour news and political coverage  right down to internet news and information for mobile phones.

The basis of quality  is money  The basis of diversity is a wide pool  of funding from public revenues through advertising to subscription.There is a public responsibility to provide public money as we do through the licence fee for the following reasons:-

1) Pigs which swill in the same trough produce the same shit.Total dependence on commercial provision drives standards down to lowest common denominator level unless there is both effective regulation and  quality competition from a provider which is not commercially funded .

2) The pool of advertising revenues is not big enough to support the BBC or parts of the BBC like Radios 1 and 2 and BBC One as well as commercial television newspapers etc. .It is already being drained by Google and the internet taking more advertising revenue than ITV but producing little in Britain in return. If the pool had to carry the BBC as well it would lead to cheap jack telly all round 

3) It is surely the responsibility of the state to ensure that for the three or four hours all of us spend watching television in the day  we get the best quality not a deluge of  mindless rubbish  and tatty entertainment. 

4) Public funding, the root of the difference between the BBC and commercial competitors, must be at a level which allows quality to be maintained in all the areas of competition The best judge of the level of funding required has to be the BBC itself and not self appointed experts, outsiders who feel that the BBC should be restricted to narrower fields of provision and certainly not commercial competitors who want the field to be left free for them to boost their profits and audiences. By the same token the decision on what areas competition is most necessary an d where the BBC can provide quality competition to maintain  or improve standards is best left to the Corporation itself.That means the BBC must be more open and honest about how it spends its money and how much each service costs

To this end it is worrying that the enquiry team appointed to advise the minister is heavily loaded by representatives of vested interests,and critics of the BBC but does not include representatives of the Universities, the media studies field or actual viewers and that the minister himself has a history of  supporting Murdoch interests .No one ca have faith in media judgements made by anyone who could be portrayed as Murdoch's man

None of this is to argue that the BBC should be to indulge in imperialistic impulses and expand into areas where it cannot provide quality competition.Nor should it have have free licence  to waste public money. The big pay-offs for retiring executives  and the excessive fees paid to many presenters are a scandal which the BBC should never have sanctioned Yet the latter are also a product of competition particularly for talent witness the departure of Peston to ITV. Here we have a pattern of the BBC breeding talent only too have it lured away by ITV or Prime which indicates that the corporation is being responsible.

.The same holds true of football rights but unless the government is prepared to lay down pay guidelines and require a wider range of access to "national treasures" the only safeguard is a requirement to publish all top payments.By the same token the BBC should be fully open to the national audit office and the Public Accounts Committee. This is public money which should be safeguarded.

The licence fee is a clumsy (and now expensive)way of funding the BBC thiugh it compares well with the high subscriptions for Sky or Prime.It can hardly be made voluntary like them because subscriptions would be fall and the burden needs to be spread over the widest possible population. Yet it could be made easier by monthly payments through standing order or direct debits for those with bank accounts and  monthly stamps for those without

The only alternative I could envisage is a proposal made by the Fabian Society in the early eighties that the fee should be levied like the rats on all households and business premises. This is however a political decision but it is neither honest nor reasonable  to lump financing of free licences to the over 75s (which is properly a social security charge)and the costs of World Service (formerly paid by the Foreign Office) on to the BBC and then argue that the licence fee is too high.

Nor is it legitimate  to argue that parts of the licence fee should be creamed off for other purposes whether they be supporting our ailing local television stations, providing revenue for Channel Four  or any other purposes each of which should its own agreed funding rather than draining off money meant for the BBC and nothing b ut the BBC We should learn lessons from New Zealand where the licence fee was frozen, quality deteriorated and fewer specialised or public concern programmes were done and this was then used as an excuse for abolishing the ,licence fee altogether

Assuming that the licence fee continues, as it probably will, the base figure should be agreed in open and unpressured negociations with government and the  cases on each side published in advance for public debater rather than by the bullying approach adopted in 2010 and 2015. Once the basic fee is agreed it should also be increased in line with inflation on an annual basis for as ten year period to give the BBC predictable budgets. 

In these negociations the government must be required to publish its objections to the fee and BBC provision and the BBC must publish an honest analysis of the scale of cuts which would be made necessary by each level of the licence that the consequences of the agreed decision are made absolutely clear.  The most worrying part of the present debate is the unstructured slinging off at various parts of the BBC, the generalised complaints and the benefits of each service threatened.

As long as the debate is based on generalised grumbles,and sneers, the anxieties of competitors and the desire to cut public spending of all kinds on one side and exaggerated  fears about the undermining or even destruction of BBC local radio and TV (areas where competition is particularly valuable which are  of particular interest to MPs) the loss of BBC 4 (important for quality provision and minority programmes) or the slashing of internet news (invaluable to mobile  phone users )it is neither honest nor useful. This decision has to be rational and its consequences must be clear if the public is to have  confidence in either the proceedings or the final decision. 

  Austin Mitchell, Grimsby 5 October 2015

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