A licence to waste money could see off the BBC

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The Independent Online
It was autumn 1997 before I gave way. Then it was all so simple. People seemed, for once, to want to make it easy: a quick call, an appointment a week hence and the visit of two youths, one of them gurgling a can of Coca-Cola. They were called "engineers" but seemed about as remote from that profession as I am from a Fellowship of the Royal Society. With a rapid signature - "Just sign this piece of paper here, mate" - and an instruction to my bank about direct debits, I was a subscriber to Sky television, a briefcase-sized black box on top of the set.

For years I had held out. The films provided by Mr Rupert Murdoch held no allure for me, any more than they do today. United States comedy shows I could do without, though they might be both funnier and better acted than the current indigenous product. Even CNN, available in most of Mr Murdoch's viewing packages, was not indispensable, despite its being still the best service in the world when something was actually happening.

Last week, by the way, I read somewhere that British guests at a New York hotel had been compelled to "make do" - that was the phrase used - with CNN because the hotel could not provide the BBC's 24-hour news channel. Any sensible person would prefer to watch CNN if he or she wanted to know what was going on in the world.

It was rugby - as much for professional as for personal reasons - which made me change to Sky. In particular, it was Sky's showing of the British Lions' tour of South Africa in summer 1997, a national sporting triumph which Mr Tony Blair did nothing to celebrate. Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, I would find a convenient pub with Sky where I would look at a television set invariably placed in such a position as to risk causing a painful injury of the neck. I would also have to buy drinks I did not want at that moment, having long practised the belief that if you wish to watch rugby seriously it must be in a state of sobriety.

In autumn 1997 Mr Murdoch was providing first-class English club rugby every Saturday afternoon, with commentaries by Mr Miles Harrison and the former international Mr Stuart Barnes which, in Mr Barnes's evident expertise and often unconscious humour, were superior to anything available elsewhere. Mr Murdoch also concluded an agreement with the Rugby Football Union, as the English Rugby Union somewhat conceitedly chooses to call itself.

This provided that all England's rugby internationals played at Twickenham, together with England's matches against France in Paris, should be broadcast exclusively on Sky television. Naturally, Wales, Scotland and Ireland all objected. Their citizens would not be able to watch their teams at Twickenham on television unless they were subscribers to Sky. These countries could have rendered the whole Murdoch-RFU deal valueless simply by pulling out of the championship. Instead they settled on a paltry compromise whereby "highlights" of the match were broadcast shortly afterwards on ITV.

The Sky rugby was fine but the black box proved less satisfactory. After several visits by the Coca-Cola-swigging engineers, I told one of Mr Murdoch's earthly representatives that I was not going to continue paying out good money for a system that was always going wrong. He sympathised, and suggested that I adopt Sky digital. The reception would be better. It would be more reliable. And he was in a position to offer me favourable terms. I accepted. Shortly afterwards he would be charging nothing at all. Indeed, I am not sure that people in his position or in the big electrical shops were not offering to pay the customers to make the change.

I am, I suppose, typical not so much in my precise reasons for having a digital system (for rugby is a minority interest) as in the general motive. I switched because I could no longer get what I wanted from the terrestrial channels. Or (what is not quite the same thing) the digital or other non-terrestrial systems provide programmes which the terrestrial channels do not provide. Kindly note the reference to digital or other non-terrestrial systems. To most people, it is a distinction without a difference. They acquire a non-terrestrial system, whether digital or of a less advanced variety, simply because it provides what they cannot otherwise get.

And is it any wonder that they do this? At eight o'clock last Tuesday BBC1 was showing Vets in Practice ("Sam Robinson has her hands full with Floyd, a 13-stone Great Dane"), while at precisely the same time BBC2 was showing Back to the Floor Again ("Top Dog RSPCA DG Peter Davies returns to the shop floor"). In one of those BBC power struggles which the broadsheet papers feature from time to time, most recently over the Director-Generalship itself, rivals for some tedious position or other - let us call them Keith Rating and Brian Tube - have their strengths and weaknesses set out in little boxes under their pictures. Rating, we are told, has a diamond- sharp brain but lacks imagination, while Tube lacks imagination too but is renowned as a scheduler. It is almost as if scheduling is an academic discipline in which degrees can be awarded, even doctorates gained. "Don't mess with Brian, that's my advice. He's got a PhD in Scheduling."

Clearly the BBC could have done with someone like that on Tuesday, even if he or she only possessed a solitary O-level in the subject. The corporation could also commission some new plays or put on some new productions of old plays. Why is it, I have often wondered, that the BBC gets hold of an 18th- or 19th-century novel which, as all novels must, depends on the imagination; dirties it up a bit; goes to immense trouble to get the clothes exactly right; and then gets the extra words slightly wrong? And all the time, lying around, there are marvellous plays, from Congreve to Rattigan (or, if you prefer, Osborne), which are of the right length, give explicit instructions and require no additional lines of any kind.

Mr Gavyn Davies and his committee are proposing to exact pounds 24 a year from possessors of digital television equipment. This is in addition to the BBC licence fee of pounds 101 and the digital fee already being paid, which can be as much as pounds 384 a year. Like Mr Pooter, I am not a wealthy man. I shall still be able to afford the extra pounds 24. But I do not see any convincing reason why I should have to.

Mr Davies says the extra money will by hypothecated - devoted to the development of the BBC's digital services. That makes his proposal even more scandalous. Instead of making some half-way decent programmes for its ordinary viewers and recovering some of the lost sport (the loss of Mr Desmond Lynam I can bear with equanimity), the corporation will merely waste the money, as it has already wasted billions on Sir John Birt's bureaucracy and on his pet 24-hour news service, which nobody watches and is not much good anyway.

Mr Davies's analogies - of the corporation's failing to start colour television or even a television service at all - are inexact. His proposals will, I agree, inaugurate a new era. It is an era which will see not a supplement to the licence fee but an end to the fee itself. I think it will see an end to the BBC too, which may not be undeserved.

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