In the election post-mortems, the BBC and Channel Four are again under heavy fire from all the parties. Many at the Corporation will argue that the fact that no side is happy is evidence that they largely succeeded in maintaining the balance.
I have never believed that the BBC is biased in favour of a particular party, although I share the view that Andrew Marr’s constant interruptions in his interview with the Prime Minister and Andrew Neil’s complaint about his lack of one both overstepped the mark. The case against Channel Four is stronger. It is extraordinary that in October their own head of news in a public lecture could call the Prime Minister a known liar. Or that they could turn away a senior Cabinet minister from their own debate to put a block of ice in his place. Yet they still claim to be impartial.
However, the more serious issue for both the BBC and Channel Four was their failure to cover or even comprehend the strength of feeling across the North and Midlands over Brexit.
Despite the BBC having opened its Salford headquarters and Channel Four’s move to Leeds, both appear to have been oblivious to the views of the people around them. Instead, they continued to pack their programmes with those who argued that people who had voted for Britain to leave the EU in 2016 now regretted that decision. The astonishment and horror on their results programmes as that view was proved utterly wrong told its own story.
It is not for Government to try to instruct or even influence the broadcasters on matters of editorial content. The BBC must remain independent of Government on editorial matters and we should uphold the principle of media freedom at all times. However, it is also important that public service broadcasters are genuinely impartial which is why as secretary of state I made impartiality the first of the five public purposes in the BBC’s new Charter. I also made it subject to Ofcom, an external regulator, who can adjudicate on complaints of bias.
I hope that the BBC itself will now carry out a comprehensive examination of their own performance during the campaign. In particular, they need to take action to ensure that in future they properly reflect the views of every part of Britain instead of the dominance of the opinions of the metropolitan elite.
There also needs to be a more fundamental debate about the place of the BBC in our new broadcasting landscape. For years, people accepted the TV Licence as a reasonable cost in order to finance the BBC. At present, failure to pay it remains a criminal offence. Many argue that it is wrong that a small number of people have been sent to prison for failure to pay fines set by the Courts for not having a licence.
When this was independently examined just four years ago, it was found that to decriminalise failure to pay would lead to a significant increase in evasion which would cost the BBC a considerable amount. While it is right that we keep this under review, it may not be wise to risk depriving the BBC of income at a time when we are also urging them to maintain the full licence fee exemption for over-75s.
In the longer term, the argument for change becomes more powerful. At present, it is still the case that the vast majority of viewers and listeners use the BBC. However, in just the last few years, more and more are also choosg to pay subscriptions for additional TV content. The Sky satellite service has now been joined by streaming services from Netflix, Amazon and Apple with Disney Plus to launch in the UK soon. As consumers opt to pay subscriptions for these services, it will be harder to argue that they must still pay £150 a year on top for the TV Licence.
I am convinced that the need for a publicly-owned impartial public service broadcaster has not diminished and that the BBC’s services such as News and Current Affairs, Radio and the World Service will always need to be publicly funded. It is also impossible to make any of the licence fee-funded services voluntary by subscription while they are still broadcast free to air through digital terrestrial transmission.
However, the Government’s intention to make gigabit broadband universally available will in future allow all television to be delivered via the internet, with the bonus of freeing up the existing spectrum for other purposes. Once all TV is streamed it is then possible to introduce an element of subscription, since those who choose not to pay can have it switched off.
The BBC’s Charter runs until 2027 but there ise to be a mid-term review in just over a year’s time. The current licence fee settlement ends shortly after. Change is happening faster than anyone expected and both the BBC and Channel Four will need to adapt to this if they are to survive.
To do so, we need to start thinking now about their future role as well as how to pay for it.