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Opinion: Why the Tories can’t be trusted with the BBC

The Conservative election manifesto promises to preserve the BBC’s status as a ‘world class service’. Thomas Newton thinks they’ve done anything but, and will more than likely end up making the service worse than ever. 

Since 2010, the Tory-dominated Coalition government has administered a series of cuts to the BBC, the UK’s public service broadcaster. 

When they say they’ll keep the good ship Auntie ticking over, everyone’s bullshit detectors ought to rocket off of the charts. Here’s why. 

Cut No. 1: The six year itch

Wasting little time after forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, chancellor George Osborne announced that the TV Licence, one of the main revenue streams for the BBC, would be frozen at £145.50 a year for the next six years. 

Spun as a cost saving measure for families, this has had the effect of sticking a pay cut to the corporation. That’s fair enough you might think, at a time when people might need to pay for that extra bedroom

In real terms, this is a pay cut. According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, the BBC has missed out on extra £58.47 per licence fee holder between 2010 and 2014.  

The cuts didn’t stop there either. As well as forcing the corporation to accept the pay freeze, the BBC had to take on more responsibilities at the same time as helping to pay for Government projects. 

Cut No. 2: Welshing on a deal

From 2013 onwards, the BBC has also had to co-fund Welsh-language channel S4C

Previously mainly funded by grants from DCMS (Department of Culture Media and Sport) the BBC has had to divert licence fee to the tune of £76.3 million in 2013-14, falling each year to £74.5 million by 2016. The rest of S4C’s cash comes from advertising. 

Like the BBC, S4C had its public funding cut from £101.6 million in 2010 to £83 million in 2012, as part of spending reviews. 

Unfortunately for Welsh-speaking viewers, the extra BBC cash couldn’t arrive in time to save Clirlun, S4C’s HD channel, which was canned at the end of 2012. The upshot of this new funding arrangement is that S4C content is now available on BBC iPlayer – although if your broadband is too crappy to access this, that’s of little consolation to any siaradwyr Cymraeg out there. 

Cut No. 3: A World of savings

Since April 2014 the BBC has also had to cough up for the World Service. When it’s not entertaining bored students, the World Service broadcasts news and reports in 29 languages around the world. This was previously funded by the Foreign Office, but since 2014, £245 million of licence fee cash has been diverted into keeping the World Service running. 


Cut No 4: BBC = British Broadband Coinpurse

Then came BDUK – Broadband Delivery for the UK – a public-private programme intended to overhaul Britain’s creaking Internet pipes and deliver superfast services to virtually every doorstep. 

To pay for this bold venture, the Government skimmed £300 million from the licence fee pot, which made up the bulk of a £530 million fund. The rest of this money came from local authorities (i.e. local taxes). This was topped up with money from the EU to make up a cool £1.2 billion. 

For a number of reasons, every BDUK contract to date has gone to one company – BT – which has invested millions of its own in making superfast services available to more British homes and firms. 

But at the same time, BT has also launched BT Sport, the centrepiece of its revamped TV offering. BT recently shelled out £960 million for broadcast rights to Premier League matches for the next three seasons. 

Or, put another way, £320 a season, more than what was taken from the licence fee to help pay for BDUK. 

BT is, of course, perfectly entitled to spend its money how it likes. Football fans might argue that it’s good that there’s another sports broadcaster out there to compete with Sky. Moreover, BDUK has contributed to an increase in the UK’s overall broadband speeds – even if austerity cuts elsewhere mean that not everyone can actually enjoy superfast broadband

All the same, there is something cruel about the fact that, at a time when the BBC is preparing to shunt a much-loved channel off the airwaves, BT’s new pay TV channels get a shot in the arm. Incidental perhaps, but cruel nonetheless.  

Cut No. 5: Local TV, for local people

If BDUK has been a success, the same can’t be said for Local TV. Dreamed up by former culture and current health secretary Jeremy ‘I love Homeopathy’ Hunt, Local TV was supposed to create a string of new channels around the UK, bringing in-depth local reporting and programming to viewers in places like Grimsby, Mold and Salisbury. I mean Salisbury, for God’s sake. 
 
To make this dream a reality, the BBC was obliged to earmark £25 million of licence fee money to help pay for local TV infrastructure. 

“Ofcom needs to do the right thing here, take out the shotgun and put the desperate dog of Local TV down.” – John MyersThe majority of licences in England have gone to two companies; That’s TV and Made Television. Most of the Scottish licences have gone to STV, which means that the SNP’s dream of the BBC funding local broadcasting in Scotland has kind of already been realised. 

A recent cross-party report titled ‘Future of the BBC’ noted that Ofcom had doled out 30 Local TV licences over the last two years and in that time only 15 channels had launched.  

The report, chaired by Conservative MP John Whittingdale, said: “So far these services do not appear to have had any significant impact among audiences nor have they made a meaningful contribution to the provision of local news and content.”

Radio executive, consultant and presenter John Myers, a man who oversaw cuts to BBC radio services throughout 2012, was even less charitable about Local TV. In a blog post titled ‘This is what failure looks like’, Myers said: “The regulator needs to do the right thing here and that is to smile nicely, walk to the door marked ‘for emergencies only’ take out the shotgun and put the desperate dog down. It will be seen in years to come as an act of great kindness.”

At the time of writing, Ofcom has yet to crack out the shotgun. Birmingham’s newly-launched Big Centre TV hit the airwaves back in March – following in the wake of City TV, which racked up debts of over £170,000. 

London Live, which is watched by just a few thousand in a city of over 8 million, has already gone to the regulator, begging to show more repeats of Black Books and Peep Show. Ofcom said no. 

The Future of the BBC: Death by a thousand cuts?

Meanwhile, the BBC, rocked by the Jimmy Savile scandal and the recent departure of petrolhead pugilist Jeremy Clarkson, continues to lumber on. The demise of BBC Three as we know it seems all but inevitable and BBC Four seems destined to suffer a similar fate

In the 2015 election manifesto, the Conservatives have pledged to carry on taking a further £150 million from the licence fee pot in order to finish what BDUK started. There’s no mention of continuing to freeze the licence fee beyond what was originally agreed in 2010 – but then again, there was no mention of that in the 2010 manifesto either

When the Conservatives say that they’ll maintain the BBC’s ‘world class service’ you’ve really got to wonder if they actually mean it. 

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Recombu.

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