Sunday, August 09, 2009

Put The BBC Out Of Our Misery

Auntie is on her last legs. The BBC is dying. The only way to save the BBC is to strip it of its licence fee, according to Labour's minister of common sense, Frank Field. Fine words but Auntie is actually alive and well and kicking back all the way to the bank, Frank.

The race is on to save public service broadcasting for the nation, according to Field, who offers a breath of fresh air and an elegant solution. But Field has a fatal flaw.

Public service broadcasting isn't dying. But the way it's funded is. And it's not just dear old Auntie. State-owned broadcaster Channel 4 lives on the back of a fat taxpayer's subsidy with a dodgy public service remit tucked way behind Big Brother.

Field's plan is to use the licence fee, albeit greatly reduced, as a source of funding to dole out to a whole range of public service broadcasters. Funding would be channelled through a Broadcasting Commission handing out cash to programme makers as long as they stick within a public service remit.

But a licence fee stealth tax is still a stealth tax no matter how it is dressed up.

And there's no need. Simply levy a tax on all devices capable of receiving a TV signal. Another tax? In fact that happens already. It's called VAT. Use that VAT revenue alone and Bob's your broadcaster.

What is clear is that the days of the dear old BBC as a bastion of public service broadcasting are long gone.

Today it's all about chasing ratings, making fat profits from spin offs, cutting cushy deals and making a £118m profit on a £916m turnover through the BBC Worldwide commercial arm.

The current row over whether to top slice some of the whopping £3.6 billion a year licence fee and hand it over to commercial operators is a red herring and simply puts off the day of reckoning.

Here's an organisation with a guaranteed income on the back of taxpayers hard-earned cash and obscene profits from its commercial enterprises.

But the current argie bargie over the future of the BBC and the future of public service broadcasting in the digital download age is all rather academic.

Downing Street needs to keep the BBC sweet in the run up to the general election - or rather keep BBC broadcast and on-line news on-side and on-message until that election is finally called and strict broadcasting laws over political balance kick in.

But a start could be made with alerting broadcasters how much would be in the kitty if the VAT on TV receivers was to be ring-fenced for public service broadcasting. A true Value Added Tax less painful than the monstrous licence fee.

The only issue is whether Strictly Come Dancing performs a vital public service for celebrities and whether Channel 4's 'Christmas' message from Iran's President Ahmadinejad really can be classed as UK public service broadcasting.

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