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Friday, 17 July 2015

The future of the BBC: it's up to you

--> Who do you think said this? "The BBC is at the very heart of Britain. It is one of this nation’s most treasured institutions – playing a role in almost all of our lives."

Or this: "The BBC remains much-loved by audiences, a valuable engine of growth
and an international benchmark for television, radio, online and journalism. It has showed this countless times over the last Charter period: coverage of events that bring us together like the Olympics; television that entertains millions like Miranda, Sherlock and Bake Off or that educates and informs like the BBC’s many world-leading nature and history documentaries; award-winning radio, with half of adults in the UK listening to one or more of the BBC’s music stations each week; the UK’s most popular website; and trusted news coverage that is relied upon at home and abroad, with the World Service reaching a global audience of 210 million and continuing to play an important role in the way that the UK is perceived internationally."

Bizarrely, given what we know about the government's view of the BBC, both quotes come from its Green Paper published on Thursday. The corporation's most devoted fan could hardly have put it better. But do not be fooled: the government is pointing a dagger at the heart of the BBC -- and what emerges from the consultation process now under way could be, in effect, the weapon of its destruction.

So this is where you come in. As the BBC itself said in a statement: "The BBC is not owned by its staff or by politicians, it is owned by the public. They are our shareholders. They pay the licence fee. Their voice should be heard the loudest.”

Now is the time to start shouting. Sign petitions, write to your MP. Go to the consultation website; send an email to BBCCharterReviewConsultation@culture.gov.uk or write a letter to BBC Charter Review Consultation, DCMS, 100 Parliament Street, London SW1A 2BQ. Tell them what you want the BBC to do, tell them what you value. But don't put it off -- the consultation process ends on 8 October.

The key issue is not what is in the Green Paper, but what decisions are taken at the end of the process. The BBC's commercial rivals -- other broadcasters, online content providers and newspaper groups -- will all weigh in with hefty submissions arguing why the BBC must be scaled back. Their arguments will all boil down to the same basic point: if the BBC did less, we would be able to make more money.

It's as simple as that. In the words of the Green Paper: "A smaller BBC could see the public pay less for their TV licence and would also be likely to have a reduced market impact."

Let's examine that for a moment: yes, a smaller BBC that did less would cost less. If it cost less, the licence fee could be cheaper. But suppose the services it cuts (local radio, online services, BBC4) include the one service you value most -- how would you feel then about paying for a licence? The whole point about a licence bought by everyone is that it enables the BBC to provide something for everyone. Ninety-seven per cent of the UK population use the BBC every week. (If you haven't seen it yet, click here to see the BBC's own video.)

It's important to be clear-minded about this: arguing for a smaller BBC is the same as arguing for an end to the licence fee. If the BBC stops trying to make programmes for everyone, soon enough those who are no longer being catered for will stop paying. And with no licence fee, the BBC will shrivel to barely a shadow of its former self. Just ask any American what their public service broadcasters provide -- that's the future of the BBC with no licence fee.

Of course, it is right that there should be a debate about these issues. There are 101 things that the BBC could do better, and it is good that once every decade it is forced to take a hard look in the mirror and ask itself some tough questions.

But it is crucial that the right voices are listened to, not just the politicians who watch virtually no television and who listen to the radio only if they're being interviewed, nor the media moguls who can't bear the way the BBC insists on creating output that is more popular, better loved and more respected than their own.

It is also important to ensure that the debate is conducted in a historically accurate context. Let's have no more of this nonsense about how the BBC has grown into some kind of media monster, leaving far behind its "core mission".

As the media historian Professor David Hendy of Sussex university pointed out in a letter to The Guardian, as long ago as 1924, the BBC's founder John Reith said “it is most important that light and entertaining items” be broadcast, because “pleasing relaxation after a hard day’s work” was just as important as programmes of "edification and wider knowledge".

Perhaps you can't bear Strictly Come Dancing, Eastenders or The Archers. Perhaps you love Wolf Hall, David Attenborough and The World Tonight. For 40p a day, the current cost of the licence fee, you can have it all. As I pointed out in a piece I wrote exactly a year ago, if you scrap the licence fee, you'll end up paying more and getting less.

And if you don't believe me, I urge you read this excellent piece by Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism at Cardiff university and a former head of news at the BBC: "If the people of Britain do not want to see the erosion and dismantling of one of the country’s most successful public institutions, they need to make it unambiguously clear now."

It really is up to you. We know what the government wants. We know what the BBC's rivals want. The only people who can stop them are the people who use the BBC, and value it, day in and day out. That means you.

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