Leading Article: It is surely right to support the BBC, but not with a tax

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The Independent Culture
IF THE Opposition, Tory or Liberal Democrat, really wants to grab an issue on which they can be radical and populist, and show some clear water between themselves and Tony Blair, the Government has just handed them one. It is BBC funding.

That was not the idea when the Prime Minister set up an advisory panel under his friend, and our columnist, Gavyn Davies, to find a way of recommending more money for the BBC. But contention he has now got. The recommendation that the BBC fund its digital needs from an additional, special licence fee, has brought this most media-obsessed of all governments straight into conflict with its friends in commercial television. Expressing the fee in monthly terms and saying that it will reduce over time hardly softens the blow to the consumer; nor does it draw the ire of commercial competitors, who fear the fee will delay the whole process of digitisation.

Now it could be argued that anything that upsets BSkyB and the independent television companies cannot be all bad. It has been a long time since the Government stood up for the BBC and gave it a boost in the world of global competition. It could also be said that the committee's counterbalancing proposals to bring pressure on the Corporation are reasonable enough. It is time that the BBC was brought under proper financial scrutiny. Selling off 49 per cent of BBC Worldwide is long overdue, given the Corporation's poor record of developing this company.

But the crucial point is that Gavyn Davies has unquestioningly thrown himself behind the concept that it should be the licence payer who continues to fund the BBC's ambitions to be a major player on the global stage. It is right to support the BBC, but it is entirely wrong to do it this way. In the great revolution now overtaking communications, no one can be certain as to what precisely will be the technology of the future, or even whether broadcasting as such will survive. But whatever happens, it will surely be almost impossible to justify a licence fee that is a kind of compulsory poll tax on consumers who are able to choose between a myriad of programmes delivered through a variety of systems.

Of course, it was not the responsibility of this committee to look at the future of the BBC after its charter runs out in 2006, nor its corporate strategy until then. But what else is half-privatising BBC Worldwide, other than having an effect on its long-term strategy? And what else is introducing a new digital licence fee, other than taking the Corporation further down a road that can only lead to a long-term political crisis? What the Corporation and its viewers need is not an "interim" report but a proper non-political inquiry into the future of the Corporation to conclude well before its charter comes up.