Christopher Hirst: The Good Life: The BBC is thirsty for our money

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The Independent Online

In a wholly predictable bit of Murdochian megalomania, Tony Ball, head of BSkyB, utilised the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival for an attack on the BBC's commerciality and, in particular, its annual expenditure of £100m on shows bought in from America. Annoyingly, there's something in what he said. In fact, I don't think he went far enough. There is an increasing tendency for the BBC's own shows, particularly the more flashy sort of documentary, to be made primarily for the American market. One recent example was a programme on the role of water in nature, called EarthRide. It should have been fascinating, but its constant use of tacky special effects and gee-whizz commentary suggested that its target audience was an American eight-year-old with attention-deficit disorder.

The problem stems from the BBC's polymorphous ubiquity. The Beeb is simply everywhere. Last year, it spent £100m on its websites. It has launched a bewildering profusion of TV and radio channels, even though virtually no audiences exist for them. The idea of thinking small is simply not an option for the corporation. Its annual operating budget is around £2.8bn. Of that, 25 per cent comes from sales of its products. The BBC is, of course, extremely proud of that achievement. The only trouble is that a large proportion of the £700m that it earns comes from America - hence the slick gaudiness that has infected many BBC programmes. Though documentaries were once the jewel in the corporation's crown, Channel 4's output is now streets ahead.

And the other 75 per cent of the Beeb's operating budget, where does that come from? Well, from us, as a matter of fact, though I don't seem to remember ever being given the chance to vote on the matter. In its Uriah Heep-ish way, the BBC points out that the £116 licence fee amounts to only "under £10 per month per household or about 32p per day". That works out at an ever-so-humble "12p for everyone in the UK". Of course, another way of looking at it is that we're forking out £2.1bn a year - and you can bet your boots that it would be more if the BBC had anything to do with it. By way of justification, the corporation fulsomely praised itself a couple of years ago in a couple of high-gloss TV adverts starring Billy Connolly and Seamus Heaney. Both declared what a wonderful job the BBC did and how they wouldn't be without it for worlds. Unfortunately, the torrent of praise was slightly devalued because neither the comic nor the poet actually coughs up for a TV licence, since the former lives in Los Angeles and the latter in Dublin.

That deficiency would never have occurred to BBC executives, who appear to believe that their money arrives by magic. There is something deeply nauseating about the contradiction between the well-recompensed fat cats of Broadcasting House and the 105,000 people (mainly on benefits and often single parents) who are annually prosecuted for not buying a TV licence. I know from personal experience the unpleasant pressure put on those who fail to cough up for Greg Dyke's salary and pension. When I inherited a house a few years ago, I forgot to renew the licence. The result was a flow of reminding letters that started pleasantly but soon turned menacing. Since I spend only about six weeks a year in the house, I was quite prepared to ignore the threats of fines and, ultimately, imprisonment. However, during a fleeting visit to the house, I was aghast to see a van equipped with a rotating aerial slowly passing by. As a result, I was burbling out my credit-card details to the TV-licence people within seconds. It was only later that I learnt our next-door neighbour but one worked for a local radio station and occasionally borrowed the outside-broadcast van.

It isn't because I have to cough up for two TV licences (even though I occupy only one home at a time) that I find the current way of financing the BBC unjust and iniquitous. Nor is it because of the perceptible decline in the quality of the BBC's output or the arrogant presumption of infallibility among BBC high-ups that has resulted in the corporation's chairman, Gavyn Davies, being hauled before the Hutton inquiry tomorrow. It is simply because we have never been asked if we want to pay. The licence fee is taxation without representation. Revolutions have been caused by less.

Sewers, onion-sellers and other museum pieces

I was pleased to hear that the port of Roscoff, in Brittany, has opened a museum devoted to Onion Johnnies, the beret-wearing Breton farmers who sell their produce around Britain from bicycles. Once, they were a familiar sight, but now only 20 stalwarts trundle along our highways and byways, festooned with swags of onions like mobile Christmas trees, though not as fragrant.

To be honest, I think their contribution is more visual than gastronomic. The last time I bought a string of onions from a Johnny, I found the price as eye-watering as the product. Still, the launch of another specialist museum in France is a cause for joy. Is any other country quite so keen to set up small museums devoted to unusual or idiosyncratic interests? Next time you're in Paris, you should spurn the Louvre and head for the Museum of Bread or the Musée Edith Piaf. Even if you have only a passing interest in ophthalmology, the Musée Pierre Marly will inform and entertain with its unequalled collection of "lunettes et lorgnettes". But the most alluring destination is surely the Musée des Egouts (sewers), which promises "an original way of exploring Paris".

Further afield, I once took a turn round the Corkscrew Museum in Rouen and received a warm welcome in the Mustard Museum at Dijon. Thousands of tourists travelling on the Autoroute du Sol through Aquitaine must have been intrigued by a sign for an institution celebrating an unlikely, yet irresistible, combination of interests. Next time you're passing, don't miss the Museum of Prunes and Rugby.