BBC needs good pruning, not root-and-branch change

July 16, 2015

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Like the monarchy and the National Health Service, the British Broadcasting Corporation wouldn’t be created in its current form. Small wonder, then, that Britain’s newly elected lawmakers are about to embark on a fundamental review of the media corporation sometimes affectionately known as “Auntie”.

Auntie has influence. Around four in five Britons spend at least 15 minutes a week watching the flagship BBC One television channel, according to Ofcom, the UK’s media industries regulator. And the BBC has a big advantage over rivals in this era of tremendous media uncertainty. Thanks to a government-collected licence arrangement, the Beeb can count on 3.7 billion pounds a year of income. That sounds anti-competitive and unfair.

The not-for-profit national institution has faced scrutiny several times before. Some politicians, especially from the right of the spectrum, have long been suspicious of its political and social instincts. Commercial rivals are seasoned complainers, too. Such pleading may be biased, but dispassionate observers can also make a case for reform.

The BBC could gain from paying more attention to the central tenets of its public service remit. The corporation could focus first on news, current affairs and other educational and cultural output – where excessive competitive pressures would not necessarily serve the nation. This core public service BBC might be funded by a “basic” licence fee. Payment would be essentially compulsory, subject to carve-outs for the least well off.

On top of the basic licence, the BBC could offer a premium, discretionary licence for its dramatic and sporting programmes. The corporation could produce some of that output itself. It could also act as a broadcasting utility, by offering time and distribution to outsiders.

Some UK lawmakers want a root-and-branch reform. But while the BBC has its imperfections, it is a much loved institution which is not obviously broken. Rather than dig the whole thing up, it makes more sense to cultivate a “bonsai” BBC. One that is smaller and stronger.

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