Just over a year ago, I contributed as a consultation respondent to Stage One of the BBC Charter Review, demanding that the BBC be funded by private means instead of a forceful measure of law as it is today (see that contribution in the March 29, 2004 archives).

In addition to my own contribution to the Charter Review, powerful arguments were made by many thousands of other British citizens who wish to be free to own a television without the threat of physical force by the UK government should they not wish to provide funding to the BBC. A “significant” percentage of those surveyed strongly opposed the license fee. 58% want to be able to choose whether to receive BBC services or not. 48% suggested alternative funding models based on either subscription, advertising or sponsorships. An amazingly high dissatisfaction rate too: only 46% believe the license fee offers “fairly good” value for money.

So, what action should be taken? The resulting policy of the Charter Review in its Green Paper published last month is as follows: to change absolutely NOTHING about the way the BBC is funded, continuing to force people to pay for the BBC until at least 2016 by means of the coercive license fee. It cites the license fee as the “least worst” means of funding the BBC, because:

a) People do not want advertising as it would interfere with their viewing enjoyment (funny, it never affected the ratings of existing commercial networks like ITV or Channel Four)

b) The revenue of the BBC would decrease due to sudden increased spot availability (funny, it wasn’t an argument against the existence of any other commercial networks in their inception)

c) Advertising would create conflicting incentives for the BBC between the need to generate revenue and “public purposes” (could someone please explain to me how it would be in the interest of any commercial company to do anything BUT serve “public purposes”, and exactly how existing commercial networks like ITV and Channel Four are accused to be serving “public purposes” any less than the BBC? [An advertising/sponsorship funding model only works when the public are finding their “purposes” served enough to watch the channel, thereby intrinsically linking the two incentives])

d) New digital technology allows viewers to skip commercials, so it would be “unwise to increase the dependency of public service broadcasting on advertising revenue at a time of such uncertainty” (clearly the most ludicrous argument I have heard applied to this discussion – but worth hearing for sheer amusement)

e) A subscription model would “raise significant issues of principal” because the content would not be ‘free’ at point of use (ah, the old chestnut, “public service broadcasting” – whatever that is)

f) If people could CHOOSE not to pay for the BBC then prices may have to rise for those who carried on paying (some lessons on how the free market works, anyone? It is an arrogant and repulsive claim that it is better to force people to be customers of a corporation against their wishes in order to prevent those who do utilise its services from having to pay a higher premium to do so)

g) Ofcom and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee agree that the license fee is the “least worst” method of funding (‘let there be light’, and there was light).

h) “The people” want it, so that’s what’s important (“the people” want free healthcare, free education and a welfare state without paying the taxes to cover it – it doesn’t mean that its feasible. Besides, all the survey indicates is that 63% of those interested enough in the BBC to take part, AND who talked about funding at all during that survey, think the license fee is the “least worst” option. Hardly a democratic mandate).

The bureaucratic behemoth that constitutes the British Broadcasting Corporation happens to be very happy with the way things are. Wouldn’t you? Guaranteed funding, no matter how poorly you perform. “Public service” status. The ability to extract from every television owner, by force, the fees necessary to keep as many people as you want employed doing whatever you want them to do, no matter how unnecessary that position may be. The BBC Gravy Train rolls on. Of course, they can’t just blatantly ignore the feelings of the general public – that would lead to revolt and a worsening of public opinion. They have to walk the line to a certain extent. They must ensure that the public are generally sympathetic to them.

And that’s where yesterday’s news fits in. According to The Guardian, the BBC are “pressing ahead with a programme of swinging job cuts as part of a bid to save the BBC £355m a year and persuade the government that another 10 years of public funding is justifiable”. In order to ensure that the Charter Review Green Paper (which guarantees the status quo) will have an easy passage through parliament, the BBC wants to make a token gesture to show that they have control over their bureaucracy. So, 4,000 jobs are on the line at the present time, and BBC employees are not happy. In fact, they’re so unhappy that their trade unions (Bectu, Amicus & the NUJ) are threatening strike action with the ultimate aim of shutting down live television. “Our aim would be to shut live programming down, leading to blank screens and dead air,” Bectu’s chief official Luke Crawley said yesterday.

How arrogant. To effectively demand of the license fee-paying public that they sustain your life on the Gravy Train, no matter how little your job is actually needed, no matter how much of an improvement will be made by the way those funds will be used. The aim of typical trade unions is to sustain employment to its own end, regardless of what that employment is for, what the plan of the corporation is or any other business concern.

The response of the BBC to union demands, therefore, should be to execute and enforce a “strike and you’re fired” policy. Public funds, as long as they exist, should not be held to ransom by trade unions whose primary objectives are to satisfy the selfish concerns of some employees without any incentive in favor of reasonable business interests.

On the other hand, perhaps the trade unions are doing us a favor by highlighting in a particularly intriguing manner the failure of the entire idea of a “public service”, and in particular the method of funding which is enjoyed by the BBC.

A fundamental flaw is at the heart of these issues, and it is this:
‘Pay us or go to jail’ remains a horrendous business model.

John Wright