The BBC needs reform, not a bigger budget

Warning about the danger of TV licence fee freezes is absurd - a freeze is a remarkably timid prospect that doesn't go nearly far enough

Is a freeze in the BBC licence fee really enough?
The Commentator
On 10 September 2012 14:26

A couple of weeks ago we were treated to dire warnings from the outgoing Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, about the danger of the license fee freeze which is to go on until 2017 amounting to a real terms cut of 16 percent over five years.

Voicing his concerns he said, “People don't realise just how challenging these cuts are going to be”, ominously warning that “one thing everyone has to confront is that a tough licence fee will mean the loss of services. I can't see any way around that, but we're getting very, very close to the edge in many parts of the organisation”.

This is little more than hyperbole for an organisation intending to cut its budget by a mere 3.2 percent a year for five years. The BBC spent in the year up to March 2012 a gargantuan £3.1 billion and total revenue was £5.09 billion.

There as has been an inexorable rise in BBC revenue, with an increase of 59 percent over the last decade.

After the BBC has found the savings of £670 million over the next five years, total revenues will be roughly the levels they were in the year 2009/2010.

We do not recall the BBC Director General in 2009 protesting that public service broadcasting was on its knees and starved of funds. Neither do we recall cries of public outrage that the licence fee was unbearably small and that one of our great national institutions was producing historically poor programmes.

The BBC, like any organisation, does not wish to see its budget reduced. The difference is that the BBC is funded by a poll tax and justifies its existence by supposedly providing a service that the market would either under provide or not provide at all.

Even if one was to agree with this highly suspect and largely unsubstantiated argument, what is staggering is that when one examines the figures, the amount that is spent on what may be considered genuine public service broadcasting is very little.

BBC Radio 4, for example, has a budget of £115.9m which puts it on a par with CBBC, the children’s BBC branch, and its budget of £107.3m. The BBC News Channel has a budget of £57 million and BBC Parliament a meagre £9.3 million. Yet BBC Radio 5 Live compares handsomely with a budget of £69 million.

There is undoubtedly plenty of fat to be cut from the bloated leviathan that the BBC has become. The BBC managed to spend over £470,000 on newspapers in the year 2011/2012 alone.

Indeed the BBC managed to increase the number of copies bought of its favourite newspaper, the Guardian, by 669 copies.  This takes BBC purchases of the Guardian to 60,498, up from last year’s 59,829, and still far ahead of purchases of its nearest centre-right rival, the Telegraph, at 50,765.

That said, perhaps it’s harsh to blame BBC staff for this warped perspective. After all, try reading the Guardian yourself without viewing any reduction in spending as a 'draconian cut to an essential service', instead of a means of reducing the waste which typifies public sector institutions.

The BBC has more resources than at any point in its history and all the benefits of modern technology to help it do its job – so much so that a freeze in the licence fee seems a remarkably timid prospect.

The BBC is long overdue reform and it should be forced to explain its real role in the 21st century. This is a process that must begin with a real cut in the licence fee – not only to give relief to television owners but to force the BBC to examine the plethora of tasks, departments and programmes it currently undertakes – and continue by questioning whether the BBC can truly justify its privileged status while spending licence fee payers’ money on the likes of “Snog Marry Avoid?”

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