Tory thinktank: Saving public service TV 'a waste of time'

The former head of public affairs at Sky has accused the government of wasting time and money trying to fix a broadcasting system that is not broken.

In a report published today by right-leaning thinktank the Centre for Policy Studies, Martin Le Jeune said efforts by the government and the media regulator Ofcom to attempt to save news, documentaries and other public service output on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 were “completely wrong”.

Communications minister Stephen Carter is proposing that a second public service broadcaster to rival the size and scope of the BBC should be set up, based around the current structure of Channel 4.

“Seldom has so much intellectual effort been expended to so little real purpose,” Le Jeune says in his report. “The crisis of broadcasting is in reality confined to a tiny number of decaying organisations and structures that were created in a different age.”

He said Ofcom, which completed its 18-month-long review of public service broadcasting in January, had failed to understand that the market was already being served well by alternative news providers, including online.

“The idea that choice, in a world of multichannel competition and internet provision, can only be provided by creating a competitor to the BBC out of the rotten timbers of a collapsing PSB system is a tragedy,” he said.

“Far too much attention, time and money is being wasted on propping up the old PSB system rather than in allowing the flourishing multichannel sector to develop.

“Clinging to the past is an option that has only the self-interest of established broadcasters and their allies to recommend it. Their arguments should be decisively rejected.”

Le Jeune added that the BBC licence fee – which rises this week from £139.50 to £142.50 – was “patently unfair” and hard to justify now that non-BBC channels on digital account for an increasing share of the total audience.

He said the broadcaster tried to justify its public funding by being too expansionist – trying to provide all things for all viewers.

“Far from being a powerhouse of originality, the BBC is a persistent me-too broadcaster with a serial record of imitation,” he said.

“It has very little logic behind it as a funding mechanism as consumption of BBC services declines in a fragmenting media world and it is patently unfair.

“In order to maintain the legitimacy of the present licence fee system, the BBC is condemned to continue to compete on all fronts and to try to win viewers from all backgrounds and interests.”

He welcomed Conservative Party leader David Cameron’s proposal to freeze the licence fee if the Tories came to power. Le Jeune said this would “exert financial discipline on the corporation”.

Le Jeune also called for a progressive reduction in the cost of the licence fee – which would force the BBC to adopt “an increasingly tight remit” and focus on core public service content such as documentaries and current affairs.

Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report is expected this summer.

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