Leading article: Bloated entitlement at the BBC

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The Independent Online

The economy has been plunged into recession. The reputation of our political class has been shattered. Yet turbulent as these times are, some things never change. For instance, the sense of entitlement of our national broadcaster remains as bloated as ever.

The Conservatives made an (unsuccessful) bid in Parliament yesterday to freeze the BBC's licence fee for one year. They argued that, with inflation falling back sharply, the case for increasing the £142.50 annual fee looks weak.

But the Corporation had got its retaliation in first. In a speech on Tuesday the BBC Trust chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, argued that any interference with the multi-year funding agreements would undermine the editorial independence of the Corporation. He raised the spectre of BBC journalists afraid to hold ministers to account for fear of upsetting their paymasters.

It suggests a remarkable lack of faith from the Chairman in the quality of the Corporation's journalists to believe they would be so easily cowed. Moreover, what the Conservatives are proposing is not an annual reappraisal of the licence fee, but a budget freeze for the Corporation at a time of extraordinary economic dislocation. This is hardly revolutionary. Private media outlets everywhere are having to cut back.

Sir Michael also warned of the dire consequences if parts of the licence fee are channelled, as some have suggested, to fund public service programming on struggling commercial channels. This would, he argued, undermine the accountability of the Corporation to its licence-fee payers. Yet this is based on the assumption that the BBC has a natural right to a monopoly on publicly-funded broadcasting. It is far from clear that the British public shares this conviction.

The tone of Sir Michael's speech reflected the traditional BBC dismissal of any questioning of its behaviour. Much of the Corporation's broadcasting is first-rate. But there are legitimate questions over the salaries it pays to its senior management, the size of its bureaucracy and the manner in which it crushes private sector competition. If the BBC continues to behave as if it is immune from financial reality and above any criticism it is surely destined for a rude awakening.