FOR most viewers and listeners the big BBC question is not the ultimate successor to Lord Tony Hall who is stepping down after eight years as director-general.
It is whether they should continue to pay the licence fee when they rarely, if ever, engage with any of the programmes the BBC offers. Who runs the show is of less concern.
However, the licence fee will present the most pressing challenge for Lord Hall’s successor to grapple with. If you watch telly or listen to any BBC radio station, you need to take an interest.
I’m sure that no-one in the world of broadcasting wants to be the one who pulled the plug – literally – on the television licence fee, which was introduced in June 1946, when most people still relied on the radio for their news and entertainment and paid their bills in pounds, shillings and pence.
Strip aside all the political arguments and funding projections and the simple fact is that many people think it’s become an unfair charge, because it is inextricably linked to having the right to operate a television set.
Last year, 25.8 million British households had TV licences, paying £154.50 a year each, yet many of these may never bother even tuning into the BBC.
Amazingly, too many people entrenched in the culture of the organisation refuse to acknowledge or accept this. And so the BBC bravely struggles on, trying to present itself as a viable contender to subscription and commercial services while knowing, in its heart, that people (especially the under-50s) are picking up news from the constant churn of Twitter instead of waiting for Hugh Edwards to deliver it to them with pomp and circumstance at 6pm.
It’s a brave Prime Minister who wades into this particular minefield; you’ll remember the debacle over free licences for over-75s and how it turned rapidly into an assault on the elderly and vulnerable.
However, on the General Election campaign trail, Boris Johnson seized the mantle. He has his own ‘political bias’ axe to grind, but he told a rally in Sunderland that he agreed that the BBC licence fee needs ‘looking at’ and questioned how much longer funding a broadcaster out of a ‘general tax’ could be ‘justified’.
He has also promised to ask Ministers to look into decriminalising the offence of non-payment. Prosecution for avoiding the fee can currently end in a court appearance and fine of up to £1,000 – and let’s just say that TV Licence enforcement officers are not known for their leniency.
As it stands, the licence fee will stay in place until at least 2027, when the BBC’s Royal Charter ends, but the level is only set until 2022. All the signs suggest that this two-year deadline will present the catalyst for making a decision on future funding.
Licence fee income was worth £3.6bn to the BBC in 2018-19, accounting for approximately 75 per cent of the broadcaster’s revenues and funding TV, radio and online content. That’s a lot of money. That’s why Lord Hall’s successor cannot duck finding a viable and sustainable solution. I hope there’s a testing section on qualities of leadership, decision-making and change-management on the application form.
Calls to abolish the current arrangements are always met with howls of indignation from certain quarters, tempered by cheers or shrugs of indifference from others.
The BBC is held up as a cornerstone of British cultural life by an intriguing alliance of traditionalists, liberals who regard public service broadcasting as a human right and those who still believe that what comes out of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme is akin to the Sermon on the Mount. The new director-general must ignore the cacophony and decide what is best for the public.
If it was up to me, apart from anything with Sir David Attenborough and possibly The Antiques Roadshow, top of my priority list would be local and regional news.
Look North is an indefatigable half an hour window into our region every evening. For similar reasons, the BBC’s ongoing commitment to what is still known disparagingly as ‘local radio’ should be held in high regard; BBC Radio Sheffield, BBC Radio Leeds and other regional stations constantly evolve to reflect the interests of listeners.
I used to argue that BBC drama and documentaries couldn’t be beaten, but recently I’ve found nothing from ‘Auntie’ to challenge the likes of Netflix’s futuristic Black Mirror series for instance. And since the same subscription channel started its archive of historical and science documentaries, I’ve had little desire to go elsewhere for a factual fix.
My personal opinions don’t matter, but our collective ones as viewers and listeners do. I only hope that the new director-general can get on with the programme of reform.