Greg Dyke On Broadcasting

Asking what the 'licence fee payer' wants is not the answer, Tessa
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I have to admit I've never met anyone who describes themselves as a "licence fee payer". I've met people who define themselves by all sorts of descriptions from "opera lover" to "Chelsea fan", from "Radio 4 listener" to "ornithologist", but I've never met someone who proudly boats of being a licence fee payer.

And yet this mythical figure, the licence fee payer, is going to be at the heart of the BBC in the next Charter period if Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has anything to do with it, at least that's what she told us when she published her White Paper on the future of the BBC last week.

When I first turned up at the BBC in 1999 as Director General Designate I started talking publicly about viewers and listeners only to be taken aside by someone senior in the BBC press office - the BBC's version of the thought police - to be told that the BBC liked to refer to its audiences as "licence fee payers". I later discovered the term had been invented by the BBC itself as a description of their customers without referring to them in a commercial way.

I always thought it was a ridiculous term and refused to use it whenever I could. It's ridiculous because it's ill defined - in my house I pay the licence fee so does that mean no-one else matters? It also implies that people have chosen to be licence fee payers when of course they haven't and, most important of all, it assumes that people paying the licence fee understand what it is used for when in fact the BBC's own research shows quite clearly that most people don't understand that the money they pay for their television licence actually goes directly to the BBC.

The only time I ever welcomed the use of the term was when my former Chairman at the BBC, Sir Christopher Bland, was asked if he planned to consult the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith before the Governors approved the move of the BBC's nightly TV news from 9pm to 10pm. He replied that it was nothing to do with Mr Smith but that he would consult him just as he would "any other licence fee payer".

But there is a more serious reason to question Ms Jowell's obsession with the licence fee payer. She tells us that the new BBC Trust must find out what licence fee payers want and deliver it. That's fine until research amongst "licence fee payers" conducted by the Trust discovers that people don't actually want the sort of programmes the BBC has traditionally delivered under the mantle of public service broadcasting. When Ofcom did similar research on what people wanted to see on ITV they found that local programming (except for news), religious programming and arts programmes were right down at the bottom of the public's wish list. If the BBC Trust research finds the same is that the end of that sort of programming on the BBC?

Surely the whole point about a public service broadcaster is that, at times, it delivers programmes that the public doesn't necessarily want but that ought to be produced and broadcast. Back in the days when Labour had some sort of comprehensible ideology a Labour culture minister would have had no problem arguing such a case - Chris Smith did when he was Secretary of State, as did many shadow broadcasting ministers before him - but now that the Labour Party has become a quasi consumerist party you instead get the sort of gobbledygook Ms Jowell came out with last week.

She even told us that DCMS's own research had showed that people watched television and listened to the radio to be "entertained" and, as such, it was part of the BBC's role to be entertaining. There's a novel thought for you. It's amazing that a Government had to do research to discover what anyone could have found out in any pub in Britain in about 10 minutes.

I was always seen as a populist Director General in that I believed that a lot of the BBC's income should be spent on what I described as popular, quality British programming. That was what audiences wanted and I made no apologies for pursuing that goal. But I also believed that it was important that we made a breadth of programmes which served the varied audiences to be found in Britain as well as, at times, making some programmes for their own intrinsic value even if the audiences were likely to be ridiculously low.

In Ms Jowell's new world of slavishly consulting licence fee payers I wonder if the latter will survive.

A bad night for the Daleks

So what happened to Dr Who? Why didn't it win the RTS award for the best drama series at the ceremony last week?

Of all the difficult things to pull off in television, radically re-launching a much-loved series is just about the hardest to do and the BBC team who made Dr Who did it brilliantly. So why didn't they win? Could it just be that snobbery came into it and the judges couldn't bring themselves to give the award to a drama that was so obviously populist?

What was ironic was that the winner, Bodies, also came from the BBC but not everyone was celebrating its success. The series was commissioned as a BBC 3/BBC 4 co-production but was cancelled after the arrival of Roly Keating as controller of BBC 2. The writer Jed Mercuria was highly critical of Keating's decision so he must have felt pretty smug after the award.

Meanwhile, we wait to find out if BAFTA will give Dr Who the award it so surely deserves.