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Academic calls for telecoms levy to fund broadcasting

23 June 2009

The UK government is being urged to move the focus of its Digital Britain strategy from infrastructure to quality content. 

Leading academic Professor Patrick Barwise of the London Business School raised concerns over the government's focus on pipes rather than people at a conference of academics, campaigners and industry representatives, organised by the Federation of Entertainment Unions (FEU). 

Patrick Barwise called on ministers to look at how small levies on telecoms and technology companies could raise large sums to support the quality content on which they depend. He highlighted the failure of the Digital Britain report to properly investigate the use of alternative funding models for public service broadcasting outside of the BBC.

He said:

"As things stand, neither main political party appears even to have considered industry levies as a way of ensuring the survival of PSB, although – as I'll show shortly – once one starts looking at the numbers, it's clear that such a levy ought to be a large part of the answer.
"The closest either main party has come so far is the Digital Britain proposal of a 50p/month levy on fixed phone lines. But the aim is to earmark that to cover part of the cost of universal, or near-universal, superfast broadband. The benefits of superfast broadband are, in my view, highly questionable."

A report prepared by the Institute of Public Policy Research for the NUJ and broadcasting union BECTU makes the case for how levies could be used to fund public service broadcasting beyond the BBC.

Other speakers at the event highlighted their concerns around proposals to use licence fee funding to support content production outside the BBC.

Luke Crawley, assistant general secretary with broadcasting union BECTU, highlighted the danger of losing support for the licence fee if it becomes dispersed amongst commercial operators as well as the BBC.

John Smith, general secretary of the Musicians Union, told the conference how levies have been used in other countries to support the creative industries.

Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary, chaired the event. The NUJ, BECTU and the Musicians Union are members of the FEU.

Speaking afterwards, Jeremy Dear highlighted the broad support for finding alternative solutions:

"Dozens of people, representing many different organisations attended this event and it is clear there is an appetite for taking this challenge to government.
"We were told that levies would be politically impossible, but the government has now proved that not to be the case.
"Before action is taken that could fundamentally undermine the BBC, the government must conduct a detailed study to ensure that all the alternatives have been properly considered."

Tags: , broadcasting, funding, conference, public service broadcasting, feu, bectu, musicians union, top-slicing, bbc licence fee, digital britain, levies, bbc