Pity the poor BBC: it is a political football in a game with hostile referees and 24 million stakeholders – its licence holders – who all seem to want different things. Its job is to serve all of them, while under constant attack for spending too much time at the wrong end of a multidimensional argument: left v right; local v national and international; news and current affairs v sport and light entertainment.
A combination of high inflation and a two-year freeze of the licence fee – its main source of income – has left the BBC facing a £500m gap in its funding. It was hoped that this dire situation would at least get no worse next year, when an end to the freeze would allow it to raise the fee in line with inflation.
But on Thursday this was revised down by a government that chose to base the increase on September’s consumer prices index rate of 6.7%, rather than the yearly average inflation of 9%. The £159 licence fee will rise by £10.50 instead of £15 – a saving of £4.50 a year. Some of the BBC’s streaming rivals, with no scruples about double-digit rises, now cost more. Under the guise of sympathy for hard-pressed householders, the Tories have delivered a cynical, ideologically driven punch in the guts to public broadcasting, adding to its deficit.
For years now, the BBC has been eviscerating itself in its attempt to balance the books, pruning away at local radio and laying waste to its international operations. Last week, BBC2’s nightly current affairs programme, Newsnight, became the latest high-profile casualty, hacked down to a 30-minute studio show as part of a plan to save £7.5m by cutting 1,000 hours of content.
While it is true that Newsnight’s audiences had been falling, its reduced stature is not going to encourage big power players to submit themselves to a grilling by its formidable new presenter Victoria Derbyshire. As the veteran broadcaster Michael Crick, who worked on the programme for many years, remarked: “If I were a dodgy politician or a crooked businessman or a lazy civil servant, I would rest a bit easier in my bed.”
What Samir Shah, the corporation’s new chairman elect, will make of the coincidence of his appointment with the licence fee bombshell is unknown. But it is advance notice of the existential challenge that the corporation will face when he heads the BBC board in the run-up to the renewal of its charter in 2027: on what terms, or indeed whether, to negotiate the very survival of its traditional form of funding. Though various alternatives have been suggested to suit an era that is drifting away from linear broadcasting to digital pick-and-mix, none has yet emerged that gives the corporation the thing the government so hates – a solvency not based on sucking up to paymasters, whether politicians or advertisers.
Mr Shah at least has a background in broadcasting. He has a diversity agenda. But as someone who has criticised the BBC in the past for a “monolithic posture that makes it appear anti-competitive”, he has a contradiction to face. The defence of the latest newsroom cuts as a rationalisation, with more centralisation and a more directed emphasis on digital broadcasting, makes the BBC appear more monolithic. There’s a danger of it looking like shuffling chairs on the deck of the Titanic while helping the iceberg to sink it.