BBC chairman Sir David Clementi will tomorrow mount a passionate defense of the British broadcaster’s funding model, painting a stark picture of a much-diminished institution if the government makes good on threats to tear up the licence fee.
In a speech in Salford, north England, on Wednesday, Clementi will unambiguously respond to culture secretary Nicky Morgan, who last week said that the government wants to have some “difficult conversations” about whether the licence fee remains in place beyond the BBC’s current charter period of 2027.
Morgan has previously mooted the idea removing the BBC’s £3.7 billion ($4.8B) income stream and transitioning it to a Netflix-style subscription model, although this would be fraught with difficulty given the BBC’s services span TV, radio and online. Clementi will spell out exactly what this change could mean for some of the BBC’s services and why the corporation should not be taken for granted.
Clementi will say that it is time for “a degree of reality” in the conversation around funding, adding that the BBC as a subscription service “would not be the BBC that the nation knows and values and, behind a paywall, it would not be available to everyone”.
He will list an array output that would be threatened by such a move, including regional news and radio, children’s content, the BBC World Service, and moments that bring “the country together” like the Olympics or the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special, which was watched by nearly 18M people. “It’s clear that a discussion of what sort of BBC we want must run in parallel with the debate about its funding, since the two are inextricably linked,” Clementi will say.
He will also make a broader point about the BBC’s standing overseas, hinting at its importance to a country that is looking to make its mark on the world having just left the European Union. “No other brand resonates around the world like the BBC. No other national asset has the potential to serve Britain so powerfully — uniting us as one nation at home, and representing global Britain abroad. The BBC is a great national asset; a diminished BBC is a weakened United Kingdom,” Clementi will say.
Although the government cannot make any dramatic changes to the BBC’s funding for seven years, the fact that it is signaling its intentions now means it is settling in for a long and rancorous debate. In the meantime, the government has said that it intends to decriminalize licence fee evasion in 2022, believing that criminal sanctions for people who fail to pay the £154.50 annual fee are disproportionate. The BBC has said the change will cost it £200 million ($262M) in lost revenue, and Clementi will urge the government to tread carefully.
Clement will say the government “should not rush to short-term decisions which unravel not just the current charter, but the wider creative ecology.” He will add: “A decision of this scale — taking hundreds of millions out of the BBC and the creative economy — must not be taken in isolation.”