BBC Trust chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, took the unprecedented step today of publishing an open letter to licence fee payers to highlight research which suggested the public is opposed to sharing the licence fee:
Dear licence fee payer
There has been a lot of public debate recently about the future of broadcasting, with much questioning of the role and size of the BBC. I felt that I should write to give you the BBC Trust’s perspective on this debate, and to outline steps that we are taking to ensure that the BBC continues to serve you well, plays its part in strengthening the wider broadcasting and communications industries and lives within its means.
As the governing body of the BBC, the Trust’s job is to focus on the interests of licence fee payers. We want to make sure that your interests are placed at the centre of this debate and that we deliver the type of BBC that you want. Recent indications suggest we are moving in the right direction. You tell us that you are proud of the BBC, that you see the BBC as trustworthy, and increasingly that you would miss it if it wasn’t there. But you also tell us that there is more to be done.
Recent debate has focused on two particular arguments. The first is that the BBC should be much smaller and should scale back its involvement in areas such as providing news for free on the internet. The second, as proposed by the Government, is that the licence fee should be shared and that an element should pass to a range of commercial media companies – initially regional news providers – breaking the historic funding link between the BBC and its audiences. Both arguments are rooted in the problems faced by the broadcasting and wider communications industries as the internet challenges the traditional role of both broadcasters and newspapers and the recession cuts into advertising revenue.
Of course there are winners as well as losers amongst the commercial providers and companies like Google and Sky are performing strongly. But how should the BBC respond to these pressures?
The Trust’s first ambition is to ensure the BBC delivers public value in the way you want. I completely agree with those who say we should trust the public more and let them drive what they get from their broadcasters. You tell us that you want a strong, independent BBC and are willing to pay for it. Equally, you are clear that you expect good value and don’t want us to take the licence fee for granted.
Our second ambition is to recognise the wider environment in which the BBC operates and the fact that a healthy media industry, with a range of high-quality public service content, is good for everyone. The BBC has a role to play in supporting this, but that must not impinge on its ability to fulfil its public purposes.
The Trust has underlined its willingness to help meet the challenges and opportunities that the industry faces. But in doing this we must put the interests of licence fee payers first. Based on emerging findings from our new survey research, the Trust believes that if, in future licence fee settlements, there was money the BBC did not need, the public would not want it hived off and given to other media outlets. Our research offered six possible options for what should happen to the licence fee once current spending on digital switchover is complete. Around half of those asked would prefer the licence fee to be lowered by £5.50, compared to just six percent who wanted additional money to be spent on regional news on other channels.
That reinforces our concern about any attempt to use the licence fee to subsidise commercial operators, as proposed by the Government in its Digital Britain report. This would weaken the BBC; threaten its independence; reduce accountability to licence fee payers and could in time lead to a bigger licence fee because it could merge with general taxation and be used for causes that have nothing to do with broadcasting.
So we believe we have a clear message from licence fee payers and the Trust will press your case with the Government. We will however also continue to work with the Government to seek constructive responses to the significant challenges outlined in Digital Britain.
Looking at the bigger picture, now more than ever the BBC needs to focus on what makes it different and distinctive from commercial media. It needs to deliver value to the public both as consumers of BBC services and citizens in the vital area of news. It needs to make sure it doesn’t ask the public for more money than it needs to do its job. The BBC can also help to strengthen the media and communications industries, working as a strong and generous partner with both established companies and new providers. Similarly it cannot be allowed to use its strength and public funding to compete unfairly or to squeeze out new or weakened competitors.
The Trust feels that there has already been some progress with this agenda. Building on the creative and technical strengths of the BBC and the strong vision provided by the Director General, Mark Thompson, the Trust has championed stronger efforts to serve all audiences; more distinctive programmes; tighter editorial standards; imaginative partnerships with other broadcasters, independent programme makers and cultural bodies; and better value for money, including on executive pay. And at the same time we have acted to curb BBC activities which impact on the wider industry, including signalling our intention to narrow the remit of its trading arm BBC Worldwide and pushing the BBC to curb pay to top talent.
But we also acknowledge that as digital change accelerates, so the need to reshape the BBC on behalf of the public becomes more pressing. That’s why, before the summer break, the Trust agreed with the Director General that he should conduct a thorough review of what the BBC should concentrate on in the future. In particular we want this to consider whether the BBC is the right size and is operating within the right boundaries, what its role should be in a fully digital world, how it can support the wider industry and UK economy, and how it can provide more of the genuinely fresh and new programmes that audiences want.
Behind this lies an agenda for change at the BBC that the Trust is determined to drive through. The BBC is a great public institution. Historically it has embraced change and adapted to serve the public interest in still better ways. We want to make sure that this tradition continues; that the BBC moves forward now, in the right shape and size, working closely with others to act as a trusted and valued guide in the next phase of digital development; but that it does this firmly from the position of securing the public interest as its priority. We want a BBC that is smarter, more efficient and no bigger than it needs to be. Above all, a BBC that maintains its independence, continues to be a trusted source of impartial news, produces great output and meets the high expectations you have of it.
We will consider these and other issues carefully over coming months and we will continue to listen to you and ensure that your views are considered before making any changes. The BBC is not frightened of change but is clear that changes must be driven by what the public wants and not by commercial or political pressures.
The seismic shifts currently taking place in the economy and in technology require us to think bigger even though it may mean the BBC becoming smaller, and above all to ensure we really are delivering the BBC that licence fee payers want and are willing to pay for. Through this review my colleagues and I will be looking to the Director General and his team to deliver just that.
Sir Michael Lyons
Chairman, BBC Trust