Part of the core BBC licence fee could still be taken away from the corporation and given to commercial broadcasters to fund their news output, culture secretary Andy Burnham has confirmed.
The secretary of state for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said the Government had not ruled out the so-called option of “top-slicing” the £140-a-year fee to plug the funding gap experienced by Channel 4.
“I don’t think top-slicing of the licence fee can be ruled out at this stage,” Burnham told a Voice of the Listener and Viewer debate in Parliament last night.
“I say that not because it’s the first option that I reach for, but I do think it has to be an option as we look at the broad range of options for the future.”
Burnham sought to reassure broadcasters such as Channel 4 that the issue of public service broadcasting funding was still firmly on the agenda – despite the lack of any mention of broadcasting in the Queen’s speech last week.
“There is no room in this year’s legislative plan for a communications bill, but I don’t believe that we need a communications bill right now,” he said.
“There are things that can be done that can take us further forward. There is an open question about whether or not a big reform of the 2003 Act is what would be needed next time round.”
He said the pace was “quickening”, with media regulator Ofcom due to present its final report on PSB in the new year, coinciding with the publication of a report by the newly appointed communications minister, Stephen Carter, on the future of media and technology in “digital Britain”.
“By any reckoning, 2009 will be an absolutely pivotal year for broadcasting,” Burnham said.
“It’s not a case of waiting for the big solution to drop from the sky. It’s about moving quickly.”
Burnham stressed that although action on PSB was likely in the new year, and the issues facing ITV and Channel 4 were urgent, the Government would not rush headlong to a conclusion without examining all the options.
“It’s absolutely not the case that there will be a knee-jerk response to these issues,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s a big bang solution but I start from the premise that at all times we are trying to preserve the best of what we’ve got and keeping it sustainable for the new era.”
BBC director general Mark Thompson, who has strongly opposed the idea of “top-slicing” and redistributing the licence fee, is due to present a series of proposals outlining how the corporation can offer its resources – including studios and equipment – to commercial broadcasters to help them meet their public service requirements.
Burnham suggested at several points in his appearance before the Voice of the Listener and Viewer that the idea of creating partnerships between the BBC and other broadcasters was a promising one.
“I feel that in the area of regional news there’s real potential for partnerships in terms of reducing costs,” he said.
“If you believe quality is important in regional TV news then I think you need to look seriously at whether these options can deliver some real value. I think there’s real potential there.”
He added: “I think the BBC has developed assets and an infrastructure over time that can put value into the rest of the broadcasting system.
“Can the BBC operate as a back bone to the entire system and help other elements of the system survive?”