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BBC Licence Row: Fudge or Fix?

Nadine Dorries’ announcement that the days of the BBC television licence are over has been greeted with both glee and horror. That reactions depend largely on which side of the political fence one sits rather tells its own story; metropolitan liberals are aghast. Meanwhile, it’s celebration time in both working class areas and the shires.

The Twitter blue-ticks have indeed responded by recycling the usual memes: At just 43p a day, the TV licence is great value. A number of them have started to compile lists of great BBC programmes, lists that largely include hits of yesteryear such as Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army . . . For ordinary folks however it’s all about liberation from the corporation’s incessant woke ideology.

Before the public forum threatens to get too carried away, it’s worth bearing in mind The Conservatives have long since promised to clip the wings of a broadcaster that has morphed into a liberal-left political campaigning party in all but name – a hardcore one at that. It never happened, until now. Coming as it has in the midst of a rancorous BBC-led campaign to oust Boris Johnson from Downing Street following on from ‘party-gate’ revelations, the timing of the announcement, though welcome, must be viewed with at least some circumspection – at least from those of us who have heard it all before.

Hence it seems reasonable to wonder if, in her apparent zeal, Ms Dorries – a steadfast ally of the Prime Minister – is not engaging in a game of quid pro quo with the broadcaster (You whack Boris and we’ll whack you back.) Because if this is so, it instantly calls into question Dorries’ intentions. Ominously, while the Culture Secretary has promised the current licence fee announcement will be the ‘last’ she has also spoken about the need to find a ‘new funding formula’ for the controversial broadcaster.

The answer to the funding ‘dilemma’ seems obvious enough: the BBC should be entirely self-funded – presumably via a subscription model in the mould of Netflix etc. And yet with ex-ministers such as John Whittingdale proposing a half-way house between private subscription and government funding, the question may not be as clear cut as assumed. Let’s face it, it would not be out of character for a Tory (Culture Minister) to talk tough, but play much softer on the actual park.

Those who fear a fudge somewhere down the line may well have grounds. Whatever name it went by, any form of government financing as proposed by Whittingdale would simply be tax-payer funding by the back-door. Back to square one. Besides, as a purely subscription service the broadcaster should thrive. Netflix has over 150 million subscribers worldwide. For the allegedly far superior BBC, opportunity therefore knocks, well doesn’t it?

Herein lies an insoluble contradiction at the heart of the pro-licence fee lobby. The BBC, they claim, is loved and valued by the UK. If that were indeed true, if the BBC is indeed valued from Lands’ End to John O’Groats, then switching to a subscription model would hardly effect its income stream; it might even increase it. To the vast majority of BBC consumers whether it’s via licence, subscription or other means, the way they actually pay for the service is immaterial. To licence or not to licence is a red herring.

All of which leads to another pro-licence talking point, one with which Ms Dorries will no doubt be assailed. Establishment blue-ticks illogically claim that the end of the licence fee will inevitably spell the end of the BBC itself. Not only is this claim evidence-free, it’s a non-sequitur. Either the BBC is wildly popular and valued or it is not. And if it is, then there is no reason why, under a subscription model, it shouldn’t thrive. Why would BBC consumers desert the broadcaster just because its licence becomes subscription? Clearly, it’s an absurd claim but one repeated ad infinitum by loyalists.

Gas-lighting aside, there are vested interests a-plenty rooting for the licence-fee. Ms Dorries will need to steel herself in the coming months. Led by the likes of £1.5 million-a-year BBC presenter Gary Lineker, verified Twitter - consisting by and large of media and entertainment accounts - have already begun lighting up the social media site. But Twitter, as we are often reminded, is not the real world. Just ask Ed Milliband.

It does seem however that Ms Dorries is prepared for what lies ahead i.e. being held to ransom by the broadcaster. For sooner or later, the BBC will attempt to blackmail the Culture Secretary by implying that the “baby will get it;’ i.e. unable to fund itself via subscription – despite its soaring nationwide popularity – Auntie will have to cut back on programmes for children, the elderly and just about every disadvantaged category one cares to mention.

Nadine Dorries will thus have to hold her nerve. The current Royal Charter, lest we forget, runs until 31 Dec 2027. Much can happen between then and now, not least change of government. Above all else it must be hoped that Conservative Party resolve viz the BBC is not driven by personal vendetta of an embattled Prime Minister, but is acknowledgment of an ineluctable reality: the BBC is beyond reform. And has been for several decades.

Formed in 1922 on a monopolistic model, a century later the broadcast landscape has changed beyond all recognition. The steadfastly progressive ‘British’ Broadcasting Corporation has always treated with scorn those who refuse to move with the times – none more so than those who prefer to stick with tradition. If some detractors relish the prospect of such an organisation being dragged kicking and screaming into the age of digital streaming, karma tis oft said can be an animal of the farmyard variety.

‘The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors,’ said Dorries recently, ‘are over.’ Fair enough, but such behaviour is just the tip of an especially dissolute iceberg. The worry must be this: with six long years still left of its charter, how will a vengeful broadcaster behave in the interim whose reports can wreak havoc, even to the extent of attempting to topple governments?