Before Tony Hall, the BBC Director General was a Lord, and just ran radio and TV news I worked for him. I don’t remember if we ever met – and if we did I don’t expect for a moment that he’d have registered it – but I do recall that a colleague at the time was a talented cartoonist whose depiction of Hall was as a schoolboy. He had a blazer with perfect piping and the kind of face that would sit well on that lad who’d always done his homework and just wanted the teachers to know he’d like even more.
At the time I thought it was a little harsh but after the latest announcements over the licence fee I owe the cartoonist an apology as the caricature seems to fit the character.
What can have possessed his Lordship to have agreed to the BBC not only taking on the cost of free TV licences for the over 75s but also to assume responsibility for the policy from 2020? Only five years ago the then DG, Mark Thompson, and BBC Chair, Sir Michael Lyons, emphatically rejected the whole idea. They didn’t just say no, they threatened to resign and they said such a move constituted a ‘red line’ that they would not cross. Lord Hall’s diet clearly has less fibre in it than his predecessor’s. He told the Today programme on Radio 4 “When I was confronted with this policy a week ago my bottom line was if I can use this as an opportunity to get back for the BBC things I think are really important for the BBC …….. and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
Nobody can criticise a DG for doing all he can to preserve the BBC’s income but that isn’t what he’s done. Fair enough, the overall deal includes the phasing in of the cost of ‘free’ licences, Government approval for the licence fee to rise in line with inflation, the end of ring fencing of £150 million for the roll out of Broadband and a commitment to closing the loophole that means the BBC gets nothing from the millions of people who access its services wholly online. But – this is a big ‘but’ it’s still adds up to a cut of 10 to 12 per cent in the Corporation’s revenue.
Maybe he sees that as a price worth paying for the concessions he’s gained but this debate isn’t, or shouldn’t be just about the BBC’s finances. This deal irreparably damaged the BBC’s independence. Most of us tolerate the TV licence because it’s a flat charge with rich and poor paying the same and rich and poor over 75s getting the same free deal. The new deal, though means, that flat tax is being used to pay for a Government welfare benefit normally funded by progressive taxation, you know, where those who have more are supposed to pay more. Tony Hall and the Chancellor in their behind closed doors negotiations have ended that. In agreeing to take on ultimately the whole policy of free licences for the elderly Hall is further shackling the BBC to performing a role that should be the Government’s.
Working with international students here as well as in India and China I’ve often found myself having to explain that the BBC is not Britain’s ‘state broadcaster’ in the way that other countries understand that concept. I have carefully stated that while the licence fee is a tax the BBC remains independent and I’ve praised the way it has stoutly defended that independence on occasions. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that anymore and I find myself siding with media commentator Steve Hewlett when he ruefully suggests that what we need now is ‘an independent public service broadcaster with a well-funded news operation to keep an eye on the BBC’
This could turn out to be a very significant schoolboy howler indeed.