Belfast Telegraph

Don Anderson: What price the BBC?

It's not a simple choice between Gary Lineker and Stephen Nolan's eye-watering salaries and free TV licences for the over-75s. The question is: do we value the national broadcaster's unique cultural heritage, or do we not? Don Anderson reports

BBC NI’s Stephen Nolan
BBC NI’s Stephen Nolan
Gabby Logan
Alex Scott
Gary Lineker

By Don Anderson

I watched the Women's World Cup England v USA semi-final on BBC One the other night. Great match, exciting to the end, which, of course, was disappointing, since I was supporting England. But the team effort was splendid and the women and their management were able to return home with their heads held high.

I also watched some of the BBC post-match analysis conducted by a female presenter and three female pundits. The presenter was Gabby Logan and with her were Alex Scott, Jordan Nobbs and Hope Solo. It was a coherent, plausible discussion and nobody on that BBC screen was being paid at an annual rate of £1.75m, because none was a sports personality called Gary Lineker.

Along with Eilidh Barbour and Dion Dublin at pitch-side, the studio women were all doing a perfectly good job, probably for buttons in Gary Lineker terms.

Even without the unfortunate proximity of the announced withdrawal of free television licence for over-75s, Gary Lineker's pay packet, while not a surprise, still causes many eyes to water. Is the man worth that portion of the licence fee?

It is a perfectly valid question and a scan of the Press and social media demonstrates that a lot of people think paying enormous sums to Mr Lineker and others listed in the BBC big money list, such as our own Stephen Nolan, is not right.

But there is another side to the argument. There has to be, otherwise the BBC would not be shelling out this money to a few individuals.

The problem for the BBC is that it is publicly funded and, therefore, regarded as part of the public sector.

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But in respect of purchasing top on-air talent, it has to operate in a commercial marketplace, albeit a relatively narrow one.

There is a mechanism at work here. For example, if women's football takes off in the public imagination and appeal, as is being predicted, then inexorably the prestige and awareness of female pundits like those I watched will be augmented.

In turn this will increase their attractiveness to the broadcasters and, lo and behold, maybe one or two of them will rise to the top of the tree and ultimately be worth big money to BBC, Sky, BT, ITV and others.

Those sports broadcasters will all compete for that talent, thereby setting the price, as happens at every auction. That's the marketplace in action and the BBC either attracts top talent with comparable offers, or it withdraws. Withdrawal would damage BBC credibility and, ultimately, its audiences.

Unfortunately much of this whole discussion is being conducted with a passion which can distort the bigger picture. The BBC said in relation to talent pay and licence fee payments for over-75s: "Around 95% of the money we control goes on content and services.

"Overall, the cost of top talent, in particular, is a tiny fraction of what the BBC spends each year - around 0.5%.

"Cutting presenter pay would only account for a fraction of the £745m-a-year cost of free TV licences for all over-75s.

"Even if we stopped working with every presenter on today's list and replaced them with presenters paid less than £150,000, we would only save around £20m. And it would leave a worse BBC for everyone as well."

It could have added that the free licence fee was a Government benefit granted first by a Labour Government and reinforced as an election manifesto pledge by Mrs May's Government.

Arm-wrestling the BBC into taking on this benefit was a struggle among unequals. This debacle is the fault of Government, not the BBC.

But there is an even bigger picture. Several years ago, the Commons Select Committee on the future of the BBC stated that the principle of the licence fee in its current form is becoming harder and harder to sustain and saw no long-term future for it.

But the funding arrangements for the BBC are based on a deal.

"The BBC gets the proceeds of the licence fee and, in return, it agrees not to compete with other broadcasters for funding from advertising, or subscription.

In an extraordinary way, this means that the licence fee is supporting the present structure of broadcasting in the UK - all of it, commercial and public.

The Peacock Report on the funding of the BBC showed that if it were to take advertising, the resulting increase in the volume of television advertising space would lead to a thinner spread in advertising expenditure and, therefore, losses for ITV.

That was the conclusion of Peacock's time, some 30 years ago, but the relationship between the licence fee and the BBC's exclusion from taking advertising still stands.

Preventing the BBC taking advertising as part of the licence agreement therefore supports ITV and all other advertising-funded broadcasters by limiting the volume of advertising airtime available and, thus, driving up its value. Commercial broadcasters know this.

So, the licence fee is not just a means of funding the BBC. It supports the current UK market funding mix of licence fee, advertising and subscription.

In those 33 years since the Peacock Report much has changed, particularly with the rise in the number of channels and streaming services.

However, the underlying rationale behind a BBC funded by licence fee remains unaltered.

Does this mean that the licence fee has a rock-solid future? It does not. But it does mean that removing the licence fee is not a decision to be taken in isolation, because the licence fee cannot be isolated.

We are going to need, as a society, to decide if the BBC is to continue to exist and, if so, in what form and with what aims and purpose, crucially about the whole structure of UK broadcasting - and this, in turn, will force decision-makers to decide how to fund the organisation without damaging its unique cultural heritage.

That important discussion is not taking place at the moment and, frankly, until at least the schisms and cataclysms of Brexit subside, it won't.

By that time, maybe one of those female football broadcasters will be earning six figures.

Don Anderson has worked in senior roles in broadcasting for more than five decades

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