Sir Michael Lyons: Public don't want licence fee shared

BBC Trust chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, has today penned an open letter in which he claims the greater part of the public is against the corporation sharing licence fee income with rivals to support failing local news services.

The move comes in reaction to government plans to use part of the licence fee to fund a replacement for ITV’s local news service, as outlined in Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report, published in June.

The BBC is against proposals to split the licence fee to help provide some form of public service broadcasting from rival news organisations.

Lyons quotes from independent research, commissioned by the corporation from Ipsos Mori, saying the public would not want money “hived off and given to other media outlets”.

The survey talked to 2,068 adults, giving them six choices about what to do with the licence fee surplus once digital switchover was complete.

Some 27 per cent supported, in varying degrees, a plan to top slice the licence fee to help fund local news in their area.

However, on a scale of one to 10 (10 being complete support) those surveued averaged a score of 4.6 when asked if they wanted the licence fee to help fund regional news on ITV. Just six per cent saw this as their preferred option.

Lyons wrote: “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.”

Lyon’s letter follows an attack on the corporation by James Murdoch, chief executive of News Corporation in Europe and Asia, who last month used his address to the Edinburgh International Television Festival to suggest the BBC should be “much smaller”

Lyons said the BBC had a role to play in supporting a healthy media industry but that must not impinge on its ability to fulfil its public purposes nor must its dominant position be used squeeze out others.

“The BBC can 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.”

He said the Trust had already taken steps to curb BBC activities which impacted the wider industry, including signalling its 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.”

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