Wednesday 8 July 2015

Deal or No Deal


...on the minus side for the BBC, the BBC has agreed to meet the £650 million cost of free licence fees for all people over 75, currently paid for by the Department of Work and Pensions, and from 2020 to take control of the policy itself, while...

...on the plus side for the BBC, (a) the licence fee will be allowed to rise with inflation, (b) the BBC will get back the £150 million set aside for broadband roll-out, (c) the government will change the law underpinning the licence fee so as to make people accessing public service TV on the i-Player (and the like) have to pay for the privelege, and (d) any decision to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee (which the BBC reckons might have cost it £200 million a year) will the put off until Charter Review and then take account of any adverse impacts on the BBC's finances.


That's roughly the way the deal was outlined by Steve Hewlett on today's Media Show on Radio 4

And that sounds like a pretty good deal for the BBC to me.


According to Steve Hewlett's calculations, however, the deal could cost the BBC a few millions. 

According to the BBC itself, the cost will be either 'flat' or (pace Tony Hall) might actually be positive for the BBC (i.e. it might gain financially from it).

Alan Yentob, speaking on Media Show, backed the BBC's present bosses and asked if Steve Hewlett was a mathematician.


The reactions from various interested parties to the government's deal with the BBC have been bewildering and fascinating. Opinions have been crossing each other in all directions. 

I was actually watching the BBC News Channel on Monday afternoon (having taken the afternoon off), watching John Whittingdale's announcement to parliament (in the wake of the previous day's newspaper reports and that Marr Show interview with George Osborne) and noticed the various sickly looks and words of shock from the BBC presenters immediately after - and then, later that day, also registered Evan Davis's sarcastic commentary on that night's Newsnight, which absolutely reeked of BBC self pity.

But that was only part of it. 

Over the past four days, we've pretty much seen and heard it all...

From the former head of the BBC Board of Governors Sir Christopher Bland to the former head of the BBC Trust Chris Patten, via the former deputy head of the BBC Trust Diane Coyle, many of the "great and the good" of the BBC's recent past have piled in, furiously denouncing the government and its "shabby deal" for risking harm to the BBC and its independence.

From Lord Hall to Danny Cohen, in contrast, the present bosses of the BBC have appeared pleased with the deal, saying it's a good one for the BBC which won't lose them any money at all (and might even gain them some). 

From Labour's Chris Leslie in the House of Commons to 'Aunty Pol Toynbee and all' at the Guardian, however, accusations that the government is guilty of an ideological assault on the much-loved BBC. Other have said the BBC is becoming a branch of the government.

And from the BBC's traditional critics ('people like us' - see this fine piece by David Keighley at Conservative Woman) charges that the government is actually guilty of completely letting the biased BBC off the hook.


And some media voices from beyond the BBC seem to share the concerns of 'people like us'.

Take David Elstein, who described the whole thing as "bizarre" on today's Media Show on Radio 4.

The thing that's especially got his goat is the fact that the government appears to have scuppered what seemed like a parliament-backed 'done deal' (both Commons and Lords) to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee, That meant, he said, that a million people every year will now continue to be caught up in the legal system - and 50 people imprisoned for non-payment of  fine each year - because of this relentlessly-enforced telly tax.

And....(h/t Guest Who at Biased BBC)....please also have a close read of this damning verdict on the deal from the editor of the UK Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford: 
Government's £650m raid on BBC finances is a PR exercise which has played the public for fools 
The last time Press Gazette did a count the BBC listed more than 200 communications contacts, but none were prepared to answer a simple question on Monday – what was the net impact of the Government raid on the BBC licence fee?
The BBC knew the answer of course (I assume the BBC would not agree a funding deal without doing at least a back of the a fag packet calculation on what the impact of that deal would be). But they weren’t telling me because it did not suit the narrative they were seeking to control. The Department of Culture Media and Sport was similarly tight-lipped about the real impact of the deal.
It suited the Government to look like it was taking an axe to the BBC finances and it suited the BBC to play the victim.
Chancellor George Osborneannounced the mo ve on Sunday morning's Andrew Marr Show on BBC One. The BBC has to "make savings and contribute to what we need to do as a country to get our house in order" he said, so would have to bear the £650m cost of providing free TV licences for the over-75s.
We (the media) swallowed it hook, line and sinker. The headlines on Monday reflected delight from BBC bashers and outrage from its defenders.
Only once this had sunk in was the BBC prepared to reveal the truth.
Yesterday Lord Hall, the BBC director general, told Radio 4 Today: “The government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC.”
So far from being a raid on the BBC’s finances, the whole thing has been an elaborate PR exercise.
Free TV licences for the over-75s costs an estimated £650m a year, we are told.
But the Government is allowing the BBC to begin raising the licence fee with inflation and has promised to close the loophole whereby those who only watch the BBC iPlayer on their computers don’t need a TV licence. And the £150m of licence fee cash currently ring-fenced to subsidise broadband roll out will reduce to nothing over time.
Today the BBC press office was finally prepared to admit that the deal is cash neutral over time.
So the Government has been allowed to disguise a tax rise (future increases in the licence fee and an expansion in those who pay it) as an austerity cut on the BBC.
And the BBC has been able to hang on to its £3.7bn a year public subsidy while every other state-funded body (outside the NHS and schools) faces massive austerity cuts.
It’s all been an unedifying exercise in smoke and mirrors politics which has played the public for fools.

Returning, finally, to today's Media Show on Radio 4...

This was a very strange affair, with three former BBC bigwigs - Alan Yentob, Diane Coyle and Tim Suter - all being strongly pro-BBC, and the chosen Tory representative - Sir Norman Fowler - being hardly less pro-BBC.

Only David Elstein (a former BBC man himself) made some strong points against the BBC (as well as against the government) - points that resulted in a short run-in with Steve Hewlett (which David Elstein won) over the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee issue. 

Mr Yentob was interviewed separately, as he, supported the deal.

Ms Coyle and Mr Suter strongly opposed it (from identical-seeming perspectives). As did the two remaining guests (Sir Norman and Mr Elstein), who joined a vigorous foursome against the government's actions...

...or, actually, a fivesome, given that the tenor of Steve Hewlett's was also strongly directed in the same direction. 

I know that many people admire SH's knowledge of the media, but he did seem to tend very strongly in one direction today, like his programme as a whole [a direction that can be characterised, perhaps confusingly, as pro-BBC, anti-deal and critical of the government]. 

And - to repeat the point - the fact of the matter is, with the greatest respect [two phrases that always spring to mind whenever I think of Sir Norman, given how often he used to use them!], that Sir Norman Fowler is as pro-BBC as Ms Coyle and Mr Suter - and made that abundantly clear today. Why was he the chosen Tory? 

I didn't find it a particularly satisfactory listen (as you may have guessed).


  1. Did you see David Cameron’s expression when George Osborne announced the over 75s deal?
    The chancellor said something like “the BBC has generously offered to fund the licence fee for the over 75s” and behind him David Cameron broke into a broad grin.
    It made me smile too.

  2. I think there are better ways to do things. The licence fee is a bit of a nonsense.

    It would make more sense to fund it out of general taxation with a 10 yearly funding review, to cut down on political pressure.

    The review should be undertaken by an independent commission.

    Then every ten years we can put the review recommendations to a referendum of the people.

  3. Collusion. Just like the "Please, Brer Fox, don't make us stop calling it the Islamic State" charade. Was that part of the deal as well?

    The only glimmer of a silver lining is that, with the addition of requiring people to have some sort of license to watch iPlayer, the BBC will essentially have been remodeled as a subscription service by the time the Charter is up for review.

  4. As with this blog, I continually hope that The Press Gazette (and David K in CW) enjoys many more reading lurkers than those moved to comment. Maybe the self-evidence of what is written often makes more superfluous?

    In your summary above I was struck again how small the pool really is around a vast topic of such importance to the state of UK media and politics and the often unhealthy concoctions between them, especially at unique, backroom levels.

    Whittingdale, Hewlett, Elstein (at least one voice in the wilderness)... taking me back to the hopes for the 'Future of the BBC' committee, eroded with each session as a succession of industry insiders came along in person to gently massage around keeping the status quo and making sure new digital developments don't interfere with the smooth continuation of a state propaganda machine that consumes £4Bpa and counting and employs 20,000 public sector employees with nowhere else to go and unaffordable redundancy deals atop eye-watering salaries. Which is why the much trumpeted 'cuts' seem to involve new or rehires on more as new departments get created left, left and left of the social media sphere (views their own).

    I knew something awry was looming when Angie Bray was about the only one trying to speak for the public witnesses whose testimony was accepted in writing, almost none of which was about how the money spigot to the BBC was kept open. And our new Minister was the one cutting her off.

    A few did raise the woeful Trust, and that seems to have been the sacrificial bone thrown, if only to rebrand oversight under another quango who knows what's good for them. It will for sure be equally in secret and unaccountable itself, at least to the public paying for it all.

    Played for fools indeed.


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