Dominic Lawson: Murray Walker might be excited, but why should we care if the BBC has Formula One?

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The Independent Online

"I'm absolutely flabbergasted – I was lying in bed listening to the news this morning and I almost fell out of bed when I heard it." That was Murray Walker, the motormouth ex-Formula One commentator, talking to the BBC about the moment yesterday morning when the Corporation triumphantly announced that it had won back from ITV the broadcasting rights to one of the world's most boring sports.

I "almost fell out of bed" too when I heard the news – but only because I couldn't quite believe that the BBC would include such a naked piece of self-promotion as a leading item within the main national news bulletin.

Possibly some people at Broadcasting House thought that listeners would be thrilled to start the day in the knowledge that a portion of their licence fee would now be heading for Mr Bernie Ecclestone's already prodigiously endowed bank account – in return for interminable broadcast hours of indistinguishable cars driving round and round in circles. They must also think that we especially like the infernal din this makes, because a BBC spokesman specifically included radio as one of the "media platforms" through which "fans will be able to enjoy uninterrupted, state-of-the-art and innovative coverage from BBC Sport".

Perhaps it might have occurred to someone at the over-excited BBC that many more listeners do not really care which particular terrestrial channel has the rights to broadcast the vroom vrooms – and that some of us, indeed, might actively resent the idea that we will now be paying for it out of our licence fee. Since the moral justification for this peculiar and archaic form of poll-tax is expressed purely in terms of the public interest, we might reasonably ask how the public interest is served by the BBC outbidding another domestic broadcaster to show something which is already available to every television owner in the country.

In fairness to the BBC, there are some suggestions that ITV itself had decided to relinquish its coverage of Formula One; but this emphatically does not apply to the other piece of news which emerged earlier this week about the BBC's sporting ambitions. It was reported that the Corporation is prepared to bid "whatever it takes" to win the rights to screen Championship League football games – rights currently held by ITV and Sky Sports.

What makes this especially bizarre is that the BBC will need to bid substantially more than either ITV or Sky, because it will not be broadcasting any of the advertising from the league's six sponsors, and therefore will be required to compensate those sponsors (at our expense) for the absence of such advertising.

It is, obviously, not just in the area of sports where the public is paying a flat-rate tax to watch something of no cultural value on the BBC which it could see anyway on terrestrial independent television at no cost (other than the inconvenience of being subjected to advertising).

I do not share the popular outrage at the mere fact that Jonathan Ross earns £6m a year from broadcasting: if there is a big market for his particular brand of harmless vulgarity then he is welcome to reap the financial benefits. What I can't divine is what public interest is served by having his endless double entendres broadcast on the BBC rather than on any other networks. Why is it appropriate that his £18m three year contract is funded by us rather than by advertisers?

The Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, defended Ross's salary on the grounds that "were Jonathan to leave the BBC I think our licence fee payers would be disappointed." This seems odd, on at least two counts. Everyone who owns a television set is a licence fee payer. Therefore we can also watch ITV, where Ross would doubtless have pitched up, absent the £18m bid from the BBC. He would, for better or worse, not be lost to the nation if the BBC had failed to bid enough.

In any case, the days have long gone when viewers faithfully stayed with the BBC, rather than watch other channels. Younger viewers – presumably Jonathan Ross' target audience – channel-hop promiscuously, with no sense of being affiliated to any one broadcaster. Why should they be "disappointed" if they have to press one button rather than another to watch Jonathan Ross asking David Cameron if as a teenager he had experienced sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher?

The BBC Director General's reference to "our licence fee payers" is in one respect very pertinent. While the £135.50 a year (going up next month to £139.50) is charged to everyone who owns a television, it is paid only to the BBC. In this context, I have always found it quite amusing that none of the documentation you receive when paying the licence fee ever refers to the BBC. Its name is entirely absent from the forms you fill out to pay for the Corporation's output.

Technically, it is true that the licence in question is for the ownership of a television set. This is now a bizarre notion, when you come to think of it. Perhaps it was appropriate when it was first imposed: then the only broadcaster was the BBC, so there was nothing available on the machine in question which was not provided, in effect, by the state.

Nowadays we watch "television programmes" more and more on computers. That is a pattern which is likely only to increase further. Yet no government would now dare to suggest that we should be charged a licence fee to own a personal computer, in order to fund the BBC material we might watch on it. Actually, a few years back, a Government Green paper on broadcasting did float just such an idea: it was instantly and unsurprisingly dismissed as altogether unacceptable to the public.

Around the same time, the BBC conducted some private research to see how much, in an age of subscription satellite television, the public would actually pay for its services, if given the choice. Rather depressingly for the Corporation, almost 60 per cent of respondents said that they would be more than content to be excluded from all BBC channels and services, if that meant they would not need to pay the licence fee.

Despite all of the above, I would be in the 40 per cent minority happy to pay the licence fee in return for what I get from the BBC. In fact, I would be delighted to pay £139.50 a year for a subscription to Radios 3 and 4 – and nothing else – even though I know that these stations would be very profitable on a much smaller subscription charge than that.

This is a measure, if you like, of the historic goodwill which many of us feel towards the BBC – even those of us who, not being members of parliament, are not the prime beneficiaries of the BBC's astonishing hospitality budget as a lobbyist.

It is a goodwill which somehow survives even the profligacy and pointlessness of bidding hundreds of millions of pounds for the rights to screen sporting events which could prosper and be enjoyed on the very same television screens – without the support of a poll tax.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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