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Raymond Snoddy 

Calmed waters by a missed boat

Calmed waters by a missed boat

A highly intelligent, well-informed report with clear recommendations has emerged from a Select Committee. 'What is going on?' asks Ray Snoddy

Reaction to the recommendations of the House of Commons Select Committees is usually in direct proportion to how outlandish they are.

Argue that it’s time to replace the BBC or privatise Channel 4 and heavy headlines are guaranteed.

Come up with well-argued, moderate recommendations, that after studying the full implications, the status quo should continue with the BBC licence fee surviving until at least 2038, and all is quiet.

The main reason for such a suggestion is that the Government has failed to come up with a workable alternative and has effectively run out of time.

The response has been muted, not least because newspapers like The Times, Daily Mail and the Sun, have been arguing for decades for the “reform” of the licence fee.

In recent years this has morphed into arguments for the abolition of the licence fee and its replacement by a form of voluntary subscription – just like Netflix.

It is the sort of attack that has come directly from Downing Street in the early days of the Johnson Premiership when Dominic Cummings was a power in the land.

Yet suddenly, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee's report on the future of public service broadcasting comes-up with something so unexpectedly rooted in the status quo that it becomes positively radical.

The argument of the Select Committee can be summed-up in one weighty paragraph.

“It’s clear that the BBC TV licence has a limited shelf-life in a digital media landscape,” the central theme begins. So far so good. We all know that public service broadcasters are facing enormous competitive pressure from the streaming services and associated difficulty reaching young audiences.

“However, the Government has missed the boat to reform it. Instead of coming up with a workable alternative, it has sealed its own fate through a failure to develop a broadband infrastructure that would allow serious consideration of other means to fund the BBC,” the Committee argues.

The eleven-person panel chaired by Conservative Julian Knight, and with an inbuilt Conservative majority, looked at three main alternatives – household or individual fee, state budget funding, or subscription with supplementary taxation.

“None of these were sufficiently better as a whole to recommend as an alternative,” the Committee tellingly concludes.

It has not been shy to draw clear conclusion from its analysis either.

The Government now needs to come out with a clear alternative to the licence fee that it can put to Parliament – with the implication that none exists at the moment- or strongly support the current model for at least the next 10-year Charter period.

They go further. If there is no workable alternative at present then the Government should actually help the BBC in driving down evasion.

Where on earth could such a radical interpretation of the status quo have sprung from? A highly intelligent, well-informed report with clear recommendations has emerged from a Select Committee. What is going on?

A look at the personnel is revealing. No less than three of the six Conservatives have worked for the BBC at some stage in their careers and another is an actor. Damian Green, former deputy Prime Minister has worked for both the BBC and Channel 4.

Those seeking to undermine the BBC will cry fix. An alternative view is that some of those involved might actually know what they are talking about.

There is another aspect to the Committee membership. No less than five of the six Conservatives were for Remain, and that of course is a taint that excludes otherwise qualified people from the Cabinet – doubly so if they failed to support Boris Johnson for the leadership.

Could it be that refugees from this Government have, by default, helped to raise the quality of select committees?

If the licence fee is to continue through the next Charter period until 2038 then other implications click in as night follows day.

Almost by definition, the Communications Act 2003 is hopelessly out of date and needs to be urgently replaced. Despite the pandemic the Select Committee wants to see new legislation enacted before 2022.

In particular, if the current structure of public service broadcasting is to survive in anything like its present form then, as the Committee recommends, PSBs should have on screen prominence that goes beyond the current electronic programme guide.

As Carolyn McCall, chief executive of ITV has argued, if your audience cannot find your programmes the business ultimately cannot survive.

The Committee is also spot-on in arguing that the PSBs should also help themselves and not just rely on the Government by taking steps to maximise their own bargaining power in the digital age.

It suggests that the five PSBs should explore options for collaboration on a single on-demand video platform – rather like Project Kangaroo of blessed memory- and that Ofcom should offer support.

Surely that is another sensible suggestion from the Committee and would give the established broadcasters more of a chance in the never-ending battle with the multiple-billion California streaming services.

Will the Government take any notice of this well-grounded report?

Another truism about Select Committees, the more sensible they are, the more likely they are to be ignored.

But facts and technology are right behind the arguments. Subscription funding for the BBC will not be a practical option for years, and it may never be a good idea if you want to preserve a national broadcaster for all.

It is impossible because millions do not have the broadband connections and many millions more do not have the necessary black boxes.

Even if it were technically possible, the overall cost of broadband subscription, box and BBC subscription would be much higher than the current BBC licence fee.

As the Committee astutely suggests – the Government has already missed the boat in being able to bring in a workable alternative way of funding the BBC in time for the start of a new charter.

Common sense is slowing winning in the face of the initial Johnson/ Cummings attack on the BBC, complete with thoroughly bad ideas such as decriminalising the licence fee, something that has now been quietly dropped.

As Damian Green noted at the time of the Johnson/Cummings attacks, there was nothing in the Conservative manifesto about destroying the BBC.

You can be cynical about the output of Select Committees. Somewhere there must be a mountain of ignored and discarded reports.

This one could mark a turning point in the direction towards sanity.

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