Scrap licence fee, urges ex-BBC man

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A RADICAL plan to privatise the BBC, open its airwaves to advertising and scrap the licence fee is unveiled today by one of its former executives.

Ian Hargreaves, who was head of news and current affairs at the BBC from 1987-90 is now deputy editor of the Financial Times. He argues powerfully in his pamphlet, Sharper Vision, against the consensus that the BBC is a national treasure that should be left largely as it is.

He advocates 'a BBC liberated from political control, free to invest, to expand, to make alliances and to develop new services'. In this way it could become a major player in the international communications industry.

Launching the pamphlet last week he said: 'Since I left the BBC I've become increasingly convinced that it can't last in its present form.'

Mr Hargreaves was recruited to the BBC by John Birt, the Director-General, and for three years was his most trusted lieutenant. His broadside is certain to embarrass Mr Birt, who is seeking to persuade the Government to leave the BBC's funding and structure intact when its charter comes up for renewal in 1996.

'This 'leave well alone' school of thought in the broadcasting debate is complacent but powerful,' Mr Hargreaves writes. 'Its saloon bar catchphrase is that Britain has the best television in the world.' Yet opinion polls show that only just over half the British people are proud of the BBC, whose share of the television audience in homes with satellite dishes is only 30 per cent, and falling. This will make it increasingly hard to defend the universal licence fee.

He dismisses the view that a publicly owned BBC is part of our national heritage, describing this as 'intellectual paternalism long ago rejected in other spheres of cultural life.

'The idea that the BBC is a cultural hearth rug, on which the family can sit to enjoy shared experiences, like some 1950s family listening to the radio and pictured on the Radio Times cover, smacks of nostalgia and self-deception'.

Mr Hargreaves is critical of the way the Government makes its broadcasting policy piecemeal, treating the BBC, ITV and satellite separately. A BBC that continued to be funded by a politically controlled licence fee woud be 'on a steep path of relative decline'.

By the time the charter came up for renewal again early next century, he said, the BBC, with a declining audience, would be in a weak position to negotiate a new funding deal, despite repeated cuts and efficiency measures. 'The decline would quickly turn into a rout,' he said.

'The generals of the BBC are proposing that it become an army in indefinite retreat. It must be asked how, in these circumstances, a fighting spirit is to be maintained.'

He proposes instead a system of mixed funding including advertising, subscription, public money and income from other activities. Under his plan, ownership of the BBC would pass to a company 'substantially owned by its employees, viewers, listeners and business allies'. The Government would keep a 'golden share' to prevent ownership falling into undesirable hands. A single Office of Broadcasting would regulate the BBC, ITV and all other broadcasters.

Mr Hargreaves warned that the British broadcasting industry is in danger of falling into overseas hands: cable is dominated by American telephone companies and satellite by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. A strong, privatised BBC could help to reverse that trend.

The Government is due to issue a White Paper next year on the BBC's future and is expected to recommend that funding by licence fee should continue. However, at a meeting of the Commons National Heritage Committee last month, the licence system came in for surprisingly sustained criticism by MPs.

'Sharper Vision' is published by: Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AO, price pounds 5.95.