It is interesting that on the eve of the publication of the seismic DCMS select committee report on the future of the BBC, the Corporation’s director general Lord Hall was hosting a screening of the brilliant drama Wolf Hall.
Perhaps it was no accident that the BBC’s best drama serial in years was being lavishly showcased at a meeting of the great and the good (what the BBC calls opinion formers) at its central London HQ as the committee was about to unleash its explosive findings.
Because Lord Hall knew what was coming in the morning and the headlines were not going to be about how brilliant Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis were in the Tudor epic. They were going to be about the report’s insistence that the licence fee has no long-term future, the BBC Trust should be abolished and the Corporation’s cash dispersed to its competitors.
You can read our report of its findings here.
But what does it really mean?
Essentially the report has no legislative weight – it is just a recommendation from a Parliamentary committee of often attention-seeking MPs. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has three months to reply to its key points – all of which they can choose to ignore.
And what could they do, anyway? Their response will come on the eve of a General Election, meaning that whatever is said will carry no weight, unless a Lib Dem-Tory coalition is voted back into power in May and Sajid Javid stays as culture secretary. Two events which are unlikely to occur together.
No, the future of the BBC will be decided after May in the run up to the renewal of the BBC’s charter in 2016. Officially, the new charter – laying out the scope of the BBC and the price of the licence-fee – comes into force at midnight on 1st January 2017.
And although the BBC say that most of the lobbying will take place in the six months leading up to renewal, towards the back end of 2016, the campaign has already begun in earnest, with people like Russell T Davies and Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky weighing in on behalf of the BBC and calling for a real-terms increase in funding.
The BBC is putting a brave face on the select committee’s recommendations. Its response welcomes some of the findings, although the Corporation clearly opposes sharing its income with competitors.
“This report confirms the importance of the BBC in national life and recommends maintaining and modernising the licence fee, something we have said is necessary,” was the official line.
But internally the BBC knows that the key point will be exactly how it reframes and shapes the licence fee, making it relevant in an age of Amazon and Netflix and iPlayer. Somehow it needs to find a way to keep it universal – to persuade viewers to pay for watching content which does not necessarily come via a television set.
A subscription model has been suggested – perhaps something along the lines of what is offered by commercial broadcasters like Sky – but that is something the Corporation has always opposed and will continue to do so. The BBC, its argument has always gone, is only the BBC because it belongs to everyone.
The most likely solution is the universal levy suggested by the report, which might mean that you pay for the BBC out of your council tax, for example. There is a fairly successful precedent for this operating in Germany. It would mean every household would have to pay the fee which currently costs the BBC a lot to collect… and even more in evasions.
It is estimated that collection costs are £120m, with the BBC losing £250m to those who don’t pay their licence fee. An automatically collected fee could therefore save £370m and would overcome the problem of paying for an unpopular TV licence when more and more viewing is done online. More money would be going to pay for more Sherlocks, Doctor Whos and Proms concerts.
But if the BBC’s funding mechanism was to change, when might that happen? Even the MPs say that the current flat fee charge will not change in 2016 – and suggest that 2026 is a more realistic date by which to change the way the BBC is funded.
As one BBC source told me, the Corporation is ready for change and quietly confident. “Every ten years the charter is renewed and people say that the licence fee has to be abolished in the next round – but it never is.”
Whatever happens, the BBC as we know it will not be allowed to stay the same. Sooner or later, for better or worse, change is coming.