Is that the echo of hollow laughter I hear? Why yes, it’s the sound of commercial broadcasters sniggering over BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons’ impassioned defence of the licence fee’s integrity.
Apparently, Sir Michael doesn’t believe in top-slicing it, not for Channel 4 or anyone else. And he’s prepared to die in a ditch over it.
Well, he would say that sort of thing, wouldn’t he? When have turkeys ever voted for Christmas, after all? But before we get carried away with smug self-satisfaction at the BBC’s dilemma, let’s at least concede that he has a point in flagging up the public interest.
Well padded and complacent the BBC may be, but the commercial sector is, and always has been, incapable of supplying the deficit. Innovations, such as iPlayer, have come about precisely because the BBC can take a longer view on product development, unbeholden to the quarterly earnings obsession of institutional shareholders.
Lyons fears that top-slicing and David Cameron’s proposal to first freeze then review the licence fee annually (instead of five-yearly) amount to the same thing: an assault on its status as something quite distinct from general taxation. Once the licence fee becomes simply a means of raising money for other purposes, it will be death for the BBC by a thousand cuts (and subsidies). Not unlike the way a substantial portion of National Lottery revenues is finding its way into underpinning London 2012, as opposed to the good causes which are a fundamental part of its charter.
Slow financial emasculation is bad enough, but the Cameron plan hints at a darker agenda. It may well open the way to overt political interference in the BBC’s news agenda. Would you trust the central cast in our House of Frauds drama to play fair over news values? That’s a rhetorical question.