The Review of the Royal Charter for the BBC should talk place over the Current Charter term
Beyond the mid-term funding review H.M. Government needs to be realistic about the BBC's long-term sustainability. A thorough review of the purposes of public sector broadcasting cannot be delayed indefinitely; CUT would suggest that that review should take place over the course of the current Charter period so that transition from the present model may begin at the end of this Charter term.
Flattening the Media landscape
We are all aware that the BBC describes its public purposes as being “to inform, to educate and to entertain”; the question now is whether a public sector broadcaster is necessary or desirable for these purposes. If it is not, is there any purpose for which such a broadcaster might be desirable? The BBC was constituted as a public corporation (i.e. what would later become known as a quango) because it was believed that broadcasting could only develop if it were developed by a monopoly supplier with some means of deriving an income from its work. The truth of this claim was always questionable, but it is of more than historic interest as it is the basis for the notion that the BBC should have public purposes befitting its status as a public body and for the idea of universality (something for everybody). Within a decade of incorporation the original purpose of that incorporation had ceased to be relevant, if it ever was, and the BBC's public status and guaranteed income would have been recognised as obsolete were it not for a political campaign in its favour centred on the absence of alternatives, its possible usefulness in the event of war, the growing number of state broadcasters abroad, and the claim that a free market would not fulfil the stated public purposes. Even then all the claims made in favour of the BBC were highly questionable, and they can have no possible relevance now, yet this created the context in which this issue is being debated today. Our contention is that it is time to relegate all such claims, and any inferences drawn from them in the past to history and to rethink public sector broadcasting under today's conditions. Please note that in referring to the Arts Council below we do not intend to comment on the future of the Arts Council, we simply judge it likely that approximately the same functions will be carried out by a public or charitable body or network for the foreseeable future; we also use the term in the singular to refer to the Arts Council structures taken together in their totality in accordance with the original usage of the name.
Incorporation brought monopoly status with it, enabling the BBC to use the machinery of government to destroy its UK rivals. It prevented the development of other companies based in this country and strenuously opposed all attempts to remedy the situation for as long as it could. Within a decade of incorporation, however, British listeners were able to enjoy sponsorship- or advertising-funded programmes transmitted from the Continent, and audiences demonstrated a clear preference for plural rather than monopoly provision. The BBC has never ceased to act in its own interests to retard development as far as possible, to catch up by reluctantly providing more popular programmes when rivals emerged, to lobby against any rivals, and to assert a claim (now unspoken) that, being itself a provider of a comprehensive service, no alternative to it is necessary or desirable. We would never claim that the BBC has not achieved a great deal, but would seek to remind interested parties that its achievements have all been matched elsewhere, either by commercial or advertising-funded broadcasters, or else, in the educational sphere, by Government agencies and charities. The 2015–16 consultation exercise appeared to presuppose the continuation of a large-scale, comprehensive BBC when that should be brought very much into question.
Universality is a legacy of the monopoly the BBC persuaded Mr. Baldwin's administration to grant, and is today an obligation arising from the BBC's current funding model. There are two aspects to universality, namely production and content. If all viewers (formerly listeners) are obliged to pay for the BBC, it must be obliged to provide 'something for everyone'; alternatively, it might be obliged to provide programmes of universal relevance whether or not they appeal to the audience e.g. programmes on recent or proposed legislation. On the technical side there is an obligation to maintain the infrastructure to broadcast to all parts of this country and anywhere identified as providing an appropriate audience for the World Service. There is also the associated matter of the geographical distribution of places from which the BBC broadcasts. It should be made explicit that all property held by the BBC is public property; title to any property that is owned rather than leased should be vested in a Government Department. Use of these assets should be available to other broadcasters subject to arrangements administered by the DCLG's Local Government and Public Services Group, use of all broadcasting studios (owned or leased) should be subject to similar arrangements. We would envisage a variation of terms to discriminate between commercial and community broadcasters. The sale of properties and privatisation of broadcasting infrastructure may be considered at a later date when H.M. Government finds it convenient to do so.
Public purposes: Re-evaluation and reform
Several attempts have been made to define the 'public purposes' of the BBC, beginning with Lord Reith's historic formula, but what is necessary now is not a new statement of purposes or values amplifying or clarifying that formulation, but an objective re-evaluation of what should continue to be produced and broadcast by the public sector broadcaster. A brief look at the historic formula reveals how deep that re-evaluation needs to be.
By Prayer Crusader St Philip Howard