BBC is nearly history now

The BBC won’t survive the next five years without massive changes. It’ll get (or keep) a lot less licence fee. It is much weaker than it ever has been. It is likely to be privatised.

When I wrote “Scrap the BBC!”: Ten years to set broadcasters free, for the Social Affairs Unit, in 2007, I was pretty sure the logic and merits of my case were sound. But I didn’t think many people in authority agreed. Plenty of them would still say they love and will defend the BBC. However, more and more people seem to be making the arguments – and proposing the reforms – which will sink it and allow much more interesting things to happen.

The BBC is at bay
Like it or not, the BBC is about to change so radically that it’ll be unrecognisable. I have never seen it attacked on so many fronts by so many different sorts of people for so many strong reasons. For the first time, the BBC has smelled defeat.

Its enemies and the weakness of its response
Here’s a partial list. Ben Bradshaw, its government boss, dislikes its constitution and contemplates reducing its size. Ofcom contemplates dishing out the licence fee to its competitors. Its commercial rivals point to its immunity to recession. The right thinks it’s a socialist propagandist (that much is tripe). The Tricoteur Tendency point to its fat cats. Sky points to the dangers of its non-commercial “free” terrestrial challenge. Newspapers loathe its dominance of online news. The literate dislike its dumbing down. David Elstein proposes subscription as an alternative to the licence fee. Most impotant of all, the Tories seem to be manning-up to bash the BBC on many fronts.

The BBC will defend itself by saying it must maintain its “offer” to all audiences in all media, or risk losing its claim to the compulsory licence fee. But its competitors and enemies will claim it only has a claim or right (limited in both cases) to do “improving” Public Service Broadcasting. And PSB is an elitist product which (it is easy to argue) the middle class ought to buy for themselves (and give to poor people if they want to).

A big new problem scuppers the BBC
The business model for dissemination of serious news and opinion is under serious strain. People fear that locally first and nationally later some new way will have to be found to get people to pay for their news and comment. For the first time ever, the BBC is perceived as part of the problem and not a plausible part of the solution.

The BBC is at bay
Rightly, the Corporation has in recent years feared that if it conceded any territory, it would lose all its ground. Now, it is prepared to contemplate being smaller rather than lose its unique USP. But really, it was right in the first place. Once the BBC loses its grip on its near-monopolies, its enemies will force it rapidly to shrink into a very small core business which would probably be privatised.

So what?
Let’s remember what we’d be losing. The BBC is a vast smug monolith bestriding most forms of broad- and narrow-casting in the UK. It is over-funded and over-controlled. It rules by terror: it manages to terrify millions of people into thinking it is indispensible and irreplaceable.

Truth is, there are zillions of ways for the affluent, literate, busy-body middle class to overcome such market failure as there may be in broadcasting. There is no problem of equity or access that can’t easily be overcome at small expense in cash and with minimal generosity.

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Publication date

20 September 2009