Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Viewpoint: BBC has no licence to over-spend

Unfortunately for the BBC, reports that the media regulator, Oftel, was considering a cut in the corporation's finances came on the same day as news emerged of two unpopular decisions. First there was the brief, farcical censorship of "Fairytale of New York" by Radio 1 and then it was revealed that houses would be bought for staff having to re-locate to Manchester as part of the BBC's decentralisation policy.

After 20 years, someone in authority thought the words used in the Pogues' Christmas hit, "maggot" and "faggot", would offend the sensibilities of an audience more accustomed to four-letter insults. The ban was soon laughed away, but the substantial help to be given to staff moving to Manchester will be an unquantifiable drain on licence fees in the future.

The BBC is such an important national institution, in an increasingly devolved United Kingdom, that most people regard their licence fee as a tax that cannot be avoided - and is, generally, good value. But attitudes towards it, especially among the young, are changing, because there are so many alternatives, on and off line, reducing dependence on the BBC.

With public support ebbing, stories of excessive salaries paid to celebrity presenters or the obsession with "live" on-the-spot reporting only add to the opposition to the licence fee. Running a public service TV and radio network is a costly business, but is it too comprehensive, for the numbers tuning in, and does it really need to match everything the commercial channels do?

Oftel, which is committed to maintaining a strong BBC, is apparently looking at new ways of dividing the licence fee between the corporation and other public service organisations. The BBC would have the lion's share, but money would also be allocated to alternative sources, which would offer their own services, geared to a new generation growing up with mobile phones, broadband and a full array of media choices.

No decisions have yet been taken, but the Government will be aware of the feeling in media circles that the UK's public service broadcasting system is due for a radical shake-up, in line with the digital revolution and growing resistance to a universal licence fee. Although the BBC is acknowledged as a world-beater, in terms of the breadth of its output and innovation, it may find it increasingly hard, in future, to justify its cost to a public which is spending less and less time on its wavelength.

One of its great strengths is its regional broadcasting, both TV and radio, and the question is whether this can be maintained at less cost, as belts everywhere tighten. If everyone else is subject to commercial pressures, there is no reason why the BBC should be given a licence to over-spend.

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