The obvious solution to the incompetence, arrogance and elitism of senior corporation figures is to scrap the licence fee,
writes George Kerevan
WHAT exactly is the British Broadcasting Corporation for? Apart, that is, from bunging excessive amounts of taxpayers’ money as “sweeteners” to departing BBC executives.
Last July, the National Audit Office (NAO), the public spending watchdog, reported that the BBC had paid out £25 million in severance settlements to 150 senior staff. This works out at a cool £167,000 a head. In 14 cases, Corporation bosses forked out more than they had been contractually obliged to. The NAO noted: “The BBC has breached its own policies on severance too often without good reason.”
This week a bevy of the BBC elite turned up at the House of Commons to defend their decision to use my licence fee to fund their friends’ retirement. Chief among them was the former director-general, Mark Thomson, safely escaped to America as CEO of the New York Times.
Thomson replaced Greg Dyke as BBC head in 2004, after the latter was forced to resign following the Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of David Kelly. Dyke in turn was successor to John Birt, who famously avoided paying income tax on his mega BBC salary by declaring himself a limited company. Thomson was followed by George Entwistle, who resigned after 54 days following a Newsnight programme that falsely implicated Lord McAlpine in child abuse allegations. Do you sense a pattern of incompetence and/or total arrogance at the top of the Corporation?
When questioned by MPs (hardly paragons of public virtue, it must be said) Mr Thomson was anything but repentant regarding the NAO charges of misuse of funds. He defended his decision to approve a severance package of £949,000 for his deputy Mark Byford, plus a pension pot of £3.7m. This pay-off was exactly double what Byford’s contract said he should get. Thomson claimed he wanted Byford to be “fully focused” in the final months of his job and not “worried about his future”.
You can just see Mark Byford crying at his desk at the prospect of giving up his chauffeured BBC limo (which cost £50,000 a year) and worrying about how he would get by on a pension of only £215,000 a year plus a tiny severance package of half a mill. Then Thomson pops his head round the door and says: “Don’t worry, old bean. I’m just popping another £500,000 in your brown envelope so you can concentrate on whatever it is you do around here.”
There is an instant solution to this catalogue of incompetence, arrogance and elitism: scrap the mandatory licence fee tax that we all have to pay the BBC – even, incidentally, if you never watch any of the Corporation’s programmes. And beware: if you are viewing or recording broadcast TV (as opposed to “catch-up”) on your computer, laptop or smartphone and you don’t have a licence, then you are breaking the law. Even if it’s Sky and not BBC.
More than 180,000 people – 3,500 every week – appeared before magistrates in England and Wales last year, accused of watching television without a licence. That’s an astonishing 12 per cent of all court cases. In 2012, 155,000 people were convicted of not having a valid licence and fined. And unlike non-payment of parking tickets (which is a civil matter), refusing to pay your television licence nets you a criminal record.
Scrapping the licence fee would mean the BBC had to fund itself, just like Sky or Virgin. The Beeb would become a normal subscription service, bundled with other channels on broadband packages. Most viewers would subscribe – the current licence fee is actually less than £3 a week. There would be no need for adverts to spoil things. Instead, what would change would be the psychology of the Beeb’s senior managers who treat the Corporation as an extension of their public school and Oxbridge common rooms.
Would programme standards suffer by abolishing the BBC’s £3.7bn annual subsidy? Hardly. In this multi-channel age there is already a wealth of good programmes from all round the globe. US subscription channels have long surpassed the Beeb when it comes to quality drama and comedy. France 24 is infinitely better than BBC World for international news. There is one area in which the BBC has an edge – its online news service. But that would make a fortune with advertising, without compromising its content one iota.
The truth is that the BBC – while staffed by many hard-working journalists and creative performers – is kept alive for ideological reasons. Back in the revolutionary 1960s, the BBC reflected the brief period of post-war social mobility. Earthy dramas such as Z Cars and the excoriating satire of That Was The Week That Was shone new light on Britain’s decrepit social and political structures. Popular support for pirate radio forced the Beeb to broadcast the new wave of creative rock music.
But the past 40 years has seen a counter-revolution – in class, social mobility and culture. The Thatcher revolution swept aside the trades unions and the old, decrepit industrial order, in the name of modernisation. Scotland and the English North were de-industrialised in favour of the ephemeral paper economy of City traders and Russian oligarchs. To free the City from domestic regulation, politics was centralised in the executive, thereby neutering parliament.
Meanwhile, the BBC abandoned its Reithian mission to educate in favour of providing mass entertainment – a cultural Mogadon aimed at turning us into consumers for the banks and credit card companies during the late, great financial boom. The BBC licence fee was left in place partly to provide the illusion of normalcy while this counter-revolution took place; and partly because our parliamentary elite still distrusts Rupert Murdoch, whose Scottish-Australian radicalism remains unpredictable.
It comes as no surprise that the executives of this new tabloid BBC behave exactly like the City bankers whose shallow culture they emulate and protect. Their absurd salaries and outrageous bonuses reflect greed and self-regard rather than worth or talent. Time we were done with both.