Paul Farrelly: The BBC licence fee deal is a drive-by shooting

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07 Jul 2015
The BBC licence fee deal is a drive-by shooting

For the second time in five years, the BBC has been the victim – and a willing one – of a “drive-by” shooting.

Only this time, in buckling to pressure to cough up £600m for free TV licences for the over-75s, the new BBC top brass have shown even less backbone than their predecessors.

In exchange for an inflation-linked, future rise in the licence fee, rather than standing up to government bullying, the much-vaunted director general Tony Hall and new BBC Trust chair Rona Fairhead have instead compromised Auntie’s independence.

And, as with the 2010 settlement, the result will be much the same: more of the deep cuts to radio, programme-making and popular BBC channels that are still reverberating today.

Back in 2010, barely five months after the election, a nervous corporation took on a raft of new responsibilities it had not forked out for before. Controversially, then as now, there was no public or parliamentary consultation over key decisions affecting the future of the broadcaster most central to the nation’s life.

The licence was frozen at £145.50 until 2017 and the BBC agreed to stump up £345m a year to take over the World Service from the Foreign Office, help with the rollout of superfast broadband and much else besides.

The central characters then have long since left the script. Secretary of state Jeremy Hunt – burned by his handling of the Murdoch attempt during phone-hacking to buy BSkyB – is now responsible for the NHS. BBC director general Mark Thompson – tainted later by the Jimmy Savile affair and excessive executive payoffs – went off to America to run the New York Times.

But two leading players remain very much centre stage. George Osborne was so much the Cheshire Cat when the Conservatives last mugged Broadcasting House, grinning at his handiwork as the BBC’s millions disappeared smartly back to the Treasury.

Five years ago, free licences – paid for by the Department for Work and Pensions – were also on his shopping list. And now, as the chancellor seeks the £12bn of welfare cuts in the Tories’ 2015 manifesto, snatching again at such a low-hanging fruit was irresistible.

Last time, though, Sir Michael Lyons, then chair of the governing body, the BBC Trust, dug his heels in at funding what was clearly a government social policy. Concerned about the implications for independence and further cuts, he showed more guts than the current lot.

On his past record, Auntie should really have found a willing ally in the last remaining leading man. For all the hyperbole after his surprise appointment – that he was “out to get the BBC” – in the 10 years I served with him as chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, the new secretary of state, John Whittingdale, had always been a fierce critic of what happened in 2010 and a strident opponent of “top-slicing” the licence fee.

And you do not have to just take my word for it. In two major select committee reports, proposed by John, the evidence is there in black and white.

In 2011, after an urgent inquiry, we found unanimously the way the last settlement was reached undermined “confidence in both the government’s and the BBC’s commitment to transparency and accountability”. “It should not,” we all recommended, “become a model for the next round of licence fee negotiations for the post-2016/17 period.”

In February this year – with the election looming, the BBC’s current charter running out, but no sign of government consultation – with the committee’s backing, John went even further.

After a major, year-long inquiry, resulting in the report The Future of the BBC, “consideration of the future of the BBC is too important to rush,” John said. There should be an independent panel, as previously, to consider 2017 charter renewal, with sufficient time to consult the licence fee payer and for government green and white papers on the way ahead.

As for further “top-slicing”, following John’s lead, we were again quite clear: “It was wholly wrong that the 2010 licence fee settlement, which permitted the licence fee revenue to be used for new purposes, was not subject to any public or parliamentary consultation.”

And not only should income “be used only for the purpose of broadcasting or the production of public service content on television, radio and online”, but the government should make good the other raids on the BBC last time “by other means such as general taxation”.

I put this to him after he was summoned to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question over the issue on Monday. Sadly, he swore black was white, and that everything the government was doing was “compatible” with what he had signed up to just five months ago.

So early into his appointment, it is sad that John – who is a genuinely cultured man – has not stuck to his guns, but has let the Treasury call all the shots. And that the BBC has waved the white flag at the first whiff of the chancellor’s powder.

The new select committee convenes again this week, under new Conservative chairman Jesse Norman, but with altogether too familiar sense of déjà vu.

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