Media Viewpoint: I don't think Auntie should get the whole cake

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The Independent Online
BROADCASTING has changed so much, and will continue to change so rapidly in the Nineties, that the BBC's inalienable right to the whole lump of the licence fee is now open to discussion. The fee exists to promote the public service ideal of broadcasting. This works well in radio and the World Service. I wish to concentrate on television.

Since the Sixties, ITV has done a great deal of public-service broadcasting. Programmes that batted against the BBC in quality and in numbers, which made no great sense on a strictly commercial balance sheet, have defined and filled out ITV's schedules locally and nationally. Since the early Eighties, an entirely new commercial station, Channel 4, has been subsidised by ITV in the interest of minority audiences, one of the primary functions of public-service broadcasting.

In the Nineties, the pressure within ITV on what some see as passe largesse will grow. Public-service programmes - anthropology, science, education, religion, documentary, arts, and risk-drama - are under intense scrutiny. Yet it is on ITV and Channel 4 that most Britons receive such minority programmes.

In the meantime, the BBC has been changing its character, too. It is now a multifunded organisation. It has linked up with BSkyB on football, and proposes to do so on news. BSkyB is a commercial enterprise, as is the BBC when it becomes its partner. The corporation has just completed a deal with Thames Television to share a satellite, funded by advertising. Once again it is acting commercially.

And why not, they cry on the sixth floor at Television Centre? Mrs Thatcher's government had made known its view that the BBC had to be competitive, so it competed. Provided we still get the Proms and Newsnight, what is the harm?

It is a matter of territory. Until recently, the duopoly meant the BBC took the public money, ITV the private money, never the twain met, and people at home and abroad kept saying that the result was the least-worst television service in the world.

Mrs Thatcher busted the duopoly, and the pieces are falling into place very differently. By beefing up the commercial challenge to ITV and Channel 4 through its satellite deals, the BBC will inevitably force both to retaliate. With the best will in the world - a substantial fund of goodwill and commitment to minority programmes remains among ITV's top executives - the programmes most at risk will be low rated, high cost per unit - ie, those largely described as public service.

Who will benefit if these programmes are eroded? Not the public, which enjoys them in minor, but surely not negligible, millions. Not the cause of variety, which is well served by the alternative productions on ITV: look at its recent record on investigative journalism. Certainly not the sense of British television as a British service, refusing to be Americanised in thought, word and deed, but relying on its own different and equally strong traditions.

A sense of Rough Justice is evident here. If the BBC can take a slice of what has been ITV and Channel 4's cake, why can we not bite back? I defend the BBC's right to the bulk of the licence fee, and hope that it will soon tell us what principles it intends to employ in the spending of that vast sum. But . . . all of it?

Why should ITV and Channel 4 viewers be deprived of programmes just because the BBC heightens the competition for advertising? And why should the two channels face losing a hard-won, varied portfolio because they are not allowed - unlike the BBC - to play both ends?

When Channel 4 was ushered through by William Whitelaw it was underpinned by ITV companies that granted it 17 per cent of their own income. In return, they took the advertising that sometimes brought the money back, and sometimes not. In prospect, it was feared; in practice, it worked simply and effectively.

So why not settle a sum - say, 15 per cent of the licence fee - to shore up public-service broadcasting on ITV and Channel 4? Domestic and foreign air-time sales of these programmes would see much of the money returned to the BBC pot. It would be an underwriting operation, and the BBC need not lose much, if any, cash. An enabling body could be set up without too much trouble.

BBC TV can no longer claim a monopoly on public-service broadcasting. When ITV was fighting for the continuation of its quality strand, the BBC did not speak in ITV's defence. The message was clear. To the BBC, public-service broadcasting meant by the BBC only.

But television has not been like that for many a year. In a shrinking market, there is a strong incentive to ensure that what ITV has achieved at the quality/minority end of the market is not junked. A slice of the licence fee, and underwriting, would prevent that.

The new Secretary of State for National Heritage, Peter Brooke, is a keen Wordsworthian, and well aware of the benefits the poet gained from mixed funding. To his essentially private enterprise, the state added a sustaining subsidy. What was good enough for the pen is surely good enough for the screen. I hope the Green Paper will at least address the last monopoly in broadcasting: the BBC's total claim on pounds 1.5bn a year. I would guess that licence-fee payers might want it used for minority programmes throughout British television.

(Photograph omitted)

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