DM2021 5PM Talk-in: Defending public service broadcasting
The panel discusses government cabals, how PSB is going to be paid for and whether Google is God.
It was, in the words of the chair Rebecca Keating, Radio 4's Today programme output editor, an hour's canter through the very many challenges facing public service broadcasting.
It was the money – obviously – but also the power of the tech giants, an unwieldly Irish media commission, a secretive, UK government-appointed broadcasting cabal and a Welsh-language service starved of funds which all threatened to dramatically change the public service broadcasting (PSB) landscape.
Meanwhile, the privatisation of Channel 4 is being mooted yet again, with lurid rumours that it will be sold to a hedge fund and turned into a "Netflix for Conservatives" while the threat of Paul Dacre taking the chair at Ofcom haunts the broadcasting sector.
However, the DM Week 5PM panellists were easily able to be upbeat about the PSB channels, why they were so important, so trusted, so full of talent and why they would survive – but they would need to collaborate, evolve and do a much better job of making viewers realise just how awful it would be if they lost them.
The panel – Jo Stevens, Labour's media and digital shadow secretary; Sir Peter Bazalgette, ITV chair; Owen Evans S4C chief executive; Patrick Barwise, co-author of The War Against the BBC; and Cearbhall Ó Síocháin, RTÉ Irish language broadcaster – all agreed that the past year had shown the PSB's in the best possible light.
Cearbhall Ó Síocháin said:
"At the outset of the pandemic audiences came back to RTÉ in search of reliable news and current affairs. And then we saw spikes of people returning to us for comfort and succour; to escape the horror in the arts, music, drama and entertainment. The real test is that we can convince them that the reasons they came during Covid-19 are the reasons that they should stay."
Patrick Barwise believes we can thank the PSBs for the UK having the lowest level of vaccine hesitancy of any major country. People living in countries with strong, trusted PSBs, according to research by the London School of Economics, were those most resilient to online disinformation and conspiracy theories, he added. Most resistant were the Nordics, closely followed by the UK; the US, was last out of 18.
Sir Peter was more passionate about impartial, trusted news:
"You can't have a working democracy without an informed citizenry and it's much, much more important today, than before the internet – that home of rumour, gossip, and paranoia. It's a Tower of Babel dominated by algorithms that are meant to connect you to what you will like or agree with. Just look at what happened in the American election and the influence of social media app, Parler, and Fox News.
"I hope everybody on this webinar, all of you journalists should be proud of what you do. You must articulate that pride frequently to friends and family. You are an important part of the fabric of a functioning civil society."
But it does come down to the money.
Patrick Barwise said:
"If the BBC's public funding had simply kept pace with general inflation, then today it would be annually almost £1.4billion better off. That would enable it to invest in tech and content and services for young viewers without cutting its investment in news, its investment in BBC4 and all those other things which appeal more to older and more traditional viewers."
He is in no doubt who is the main villain of the piece: George Osborne. It was the former chancellor who persuaded the BBC to take on the costs of the welfare benefit of the over-75s' TV licence – a decision that has cost it very dear.
When you are a state-financed enterprise, money means politics. "Last November, the government set up their PSB advisory panel and populated it with their supporters," Jo Stevens said.
"This panel was not set up under Cabinet Office guidelines and its discussions and advice are entirely secret. They are so secret that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport claims that to publish minutes of its meetings over the past six months would have a chilling effect on further discussions.
"Dominic Cummings may have departed and the threat of decriminalisation of the licence fee has been seen off for now, but there are plenty of anti-BBC MPs to bang the drum. And, if the government does go ahead with the privatisation of Channel 4, you have really got to ask what's the rationale, what are the drivers, what is the problem the government is trying to solve by doing this?"
It's not necessarily the just money for Sir Peter; while ITV's advertising revenue plummeted in the depths of the pandemic, its reported external revenue is £1.86bn. His main concern are the tech giants:
"If in 10 years' time, all TV signals are distributed by the internet, that means the gatekeepers will be the supranational monopolies – the Googles, the Facebooks, the Amazons. If they choose not to give PSBs prominence on their platforms, choose to take 30 per cent of the revenue; or decide not to share data we'll all be in great trouble. That's the biggest threat for me, and why we need legislative change to grant prominence to public service broadcasters and fair value for their programming," he said.
But it's mostly about the money. Sir Peter favours some sort of dedicated funding for the BBC and other PSBs – he doesn't want further competitors for the advertising. But even advertising is political. Sir Peter explained that the Prime Minister's latest bright idea to ban junk food adverts before 9pm would take hundreds of millions of pounds out of commercial television. In the case of ITV, it would take out more money than its spend on regional news.
All the panellists agreed the TV licence fee was doomed. They preferred the sort of funding that cannot be raided by governments. Patrick Barwise suggested some sort of universal household levy. RTÉ's favoured solution would be a household charge – licence fee evasion rates in Ireland are 13-14 per cent, among the highest in Europe. "The problem, of course, is that it would be seen as another tax," said Cearbhall Ó Síocháin. "We had a huge issue with water charges in Ireland recently, so it's a brave politician who is going to announce that, in order save your public service broadcaster, they're going to hit you with a tax."
Having been funded by government grant, advertising and almost every other way apart from subscription, SC4's Owen Evans would be happy with an independent, hypothecated fund – the stations providing services in indigenous languages had a special case, he said. Netflix wasn't going to broadcast in Welsh or Gaeilge and state funding was usually the only option to maintain a nation's culture.
At the end of the session there was time for one question.
"I can see on the Q&A column that Ronan Brady has said surely Google is not God," said Sir Peter. "Well Ronan, they say God is everywhere… and so too is Google."