Licence fee fairest way to fund BBC
26 February 2015
The licence fee is the fairest way of funding the BBC, but it needs to be increased if the corporation is to continue to produce high-quality programmes and current affairs.
The NUJ agreed with the finding of a report by the culture, media and sport select committee that "there is currently no better alternative to the licence fee but as a minimum the licence fee must be amended to cover catch-up television as soon as possible".
The union also agreed with the all-party group that as the BBC faces its charter renewal in 2107, the public and other stakeholders should be fully consulted. The committee called for "an independent review panel on the 2017 charter, so that the process is as thorough, open and democratic as it can be".
Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, has already been condemned by the committee for the shabby, behind-doors deal of 2010, when he agreed a licence fee freeze and for the fee to be used to fund the World Service, BBC Monitoring, S4C and fast broadband, at a cost of £340m.
The NUJ, however, takes issue with a number of the committee's recommendations. It does not agree that the BBC should scale down its activities and no longer provide "something for everyone". The union believes the BBC's strength is that it provides programming for all licence-fee payers and that it should not be reduced to a rump service following a narrow, "worthy" public service remit. Even rival broadcasters agree that it is the quality of the BBC across all genres, from documentaries to showbusiness, which sets the standard for the whole broadcasting industry.
The NUJ also does not see the need for another quango, the Public Service Broadcasting Commission, as suggested by the committee to scrutinise the BBC. The problem has been that Ofcom has been turned into a light-touch regulator; instead of a new regulator, Ofcom's remit and powers should be reformed so that it can protect and uphold public service broadcasting values and value for money.
The NUJ has already said Ofcom should take charge of the monitoring of diversity of broadcasting organisations' staff. The NUJ sees no problem with the committee's suggestion that the National Audit Office should have unrestricted access to the BBC.
The committee has recommended the abolition of the BBC Trust; the NUJ believes that whatever governing structure is set up for the next charter period, it should include union representation. Some of the recent disasters, for example the £100m fiasco of the Digital Media Initiative, could have been averted if staff had been listened to.
The committee said "a broadcasting levy on all households is the preferred alternative but a degree of subscription for BBC services could be a possibility in the future". The NUJ opposes any subscription for BBC services, but believes there may be the case for a discussion, with full consultation, of other funding models, such as the German broadcasting levy on households, although it would turn the fee into a tax. The committee also suggested studying the new system in Finland, a hypothecated tax, based on income, specifically for broadcasting.
The NUJ shares the committee's concerns that "the combining of the role of the BBC deputy director of news with that of the director of the World Service will dilute the independent voice of the World Service" and the union believes the World Service should be funded separately (as should the language services and BBC Monitoring).
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:
"The committee has recognised there is currently no better alternative for the funding of the BBC in the near term other than a hypothecated tax or licence fee. The NUJ agrees. Decisions will be made after the election on the future of the licence and the BBC's charter renewal in 2107, but already the BBC bashers are out in force – from sections of the Conservative Party to owners of rival broadcasters, such as Rupert Murdoch, through his newspapers.
"We should be proud of the BBC, its reputation is unparalleled and it is responsible for the high quality of the whole broadcasting industry in the UK. The charter renewal should also be used to reverse the disastrous deal made by Mark Thompson - the World Service and BBC Monitoring should be funded separately and SC4 uncoupled. But, most of all, the BBC should be providing something for everyone and not be reduced to a rump service as in the USA.
"We want quality journalism and programming at the BBC to be enhanced, not further diminished as they have been under ill-thought out and disastrously implemented cuts to date."
Sue Harris, NUJ national broadcast organiser, said:
"For 40 pence per day, every household gets access to eight network TV channels, 10 national radio services, and online services. They also get the Proms, orchestras, choirs and Open University. If they don't want the BBC's services they don't have to buy a licence, but the fact that 96 per cent of the public do shows what a popular and crucial service it is. The licence fee works and will continue to work as long as it is increased. The BBC has already made huge cuts and, if it is to provide quality programming and quality current affairs, it needs to be properly funded."