Licence fee `on the way out'

The most senior executive of the BBC admitted yesterday that the end could be in sight for the licence fee, in the first public acknowledgement by the corporation that an era was drawing to a close.

In an unprecedented admission, Sir Christopher Bland, the corporation's chairman, accepted the prospect that the licence fee might no longer exist in 15 or 20 years' time - or even in as little as five years.

The Tory MP Toby Jessel challenged him in a Heritage Select Committee hearing on the BBC and the future of broadcasting, asking: "If I were not an MP but a bookie, would you think I would be far out if I laid odds against the licence system still being here in 15 or 20 year's time?"

"My own view is yes," Sir Christopher said. He added: "But these are hard things to forecast and right now I think I can say fairly clearly we know we have the licence fee for five years."

For 75 years, the BBC has been funded by the licence payer on the assumption of a universal sharing of interest and the corporation argues it is the best method of ensuring the best service for the nation.

But the payment system is in danger of becoming an anachronism, with the explosion of satellite and cable, pay-per-view and the move to digital transmission. It is due to be reviewed by the Government in 2001.

The notion that the licence fee could come to an end - not least because it could be difficult to justify in the context of 200 television channels and the loss of rights to major sporting events - has never been publicly addressed by the BBC.

Earlier, Sir Christopher had been forced reveal his lack of certainty about the survival of the licence fee when Tory MP Sir John Gorst asked: "Do you foresee the licence fee funding the BBC forever?"

"I'm chairman for another four years and five months," Sir Christopher replied ambiguously. "You can't look forever. It's impossible to say."