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Roger Mosey on the BBC licence fee & the privatisation of Channel 4

With the Conservative leadership race fast approaching its close, the former Head of BBC Television News tells us what he thinks should happen to public broadcasting policies.

Roger Mosey BBC
BBC
Published: Saturday, 23rd July 2022 at 8:00 am

This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.

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When politicians are in a pickle, they often bash the broadcasters. It’s an easy way of saying that the problem is not their message but the way it’s distorted by the media; and they can rally their supporters by attacking journalists – especially those who work for the BBC.

Labour politicians are as likely to do this as Conservatives; Tony Blair and Harold Wilson found the corporation infuriating at times. But the days of the Johnson government were particularly torrid for our public service media, and it would be better for us all if the next prime minister takes a more constructive approach.

Part of the Boris Johnson approach was not only to get his culture secretary to impose punitive measures on the BBC, but to make her appointment a punishment in itself. It’s hard to imagine anyone less suitable for the job than Nadine Dorries. Her gaffes ranged from confusing rugby union with rugby league, to talking about tennis “pitches” and “downstreaming” movies, and she praised Channel 5 for demonstrating the benefits of privatisation when it had never been state-owned.

The substance of her policies was worse. She announced on Twitter that the BBC licence fee settlement would be the last, without knowing how the corporation would be funded instead. The plan to privatise Channel 4 gathered pace in the face of huge public opposition; and the Online Safety Bill could erode free speech rights.

Nadine Dorries
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries Leon Neal/Getty Images

And yet… some of Dorries’s instincts are not wrong. She’s right that the licence fee is an out-of-date idea, and in a cost-of-living crisis we should not be jailing non-payers. Channel 4 has strayed from its mission of distinctiveness with endless property shows and series of Come Dine with Me. Dorries is also correct that the BBC has been poor at reflecting the views of the entire country, and that groupthink in editorial meetings is damaging. You could write a book about some of the failings of public service broadcasting (indeed, I just did). Westminster reporters didn’t see the wave of support for Brexit in the towns of England, and were slow to understand what was happening across the UK during recent general elections. More widely, London is still way too dominant in its power to make decisions about what we see and hear, and there is an unquestionable metropolitan bias – and yes, sometimes a liberal one, too.

The answer is not to strip the BBC of resources and sell Channel 4 into foreign ownership. We should start from the fact that the BBC is a globally respected broadcaster that has enhanced our national life for a century. So how do we reform it with the aim of making it better? Channel 4’s identity problem won’t be solved by making it more like Netflix, as the Government seems to want, but by remembering why state ownership was seen as a guarantor of quirky Britishness.

The early days of the Conservative leadership race brought some hope. One candidate was asked, “Would you scrap the BBC licence fee?” and immediately answered “no”. But there were less encouraging signs that the culture wars might be intensified. In a digital age, the risk is that we can retreat to places where our friends agree with us and we attack our opponents, when what’s needed is a common space that brings us together. Public broadcasting can still do that, and it would be beyond irresponsible to throw it all away. The new PM will have the chance to change course – let’s hope they take it.

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