Friday 21 February 2020

Like a polar bear on a receding piece of ice

Last night's Question Time ended with a question about the BBC.

Michael Portillo was particularly punchy about the BBC's prospects and drove on through all of Fiona Bruce's many defensive, pro-BBC interruptions. 

Here's a transcript:

Fiona Bruce: Let's take a question now from Maggie Stansfield. 
Maggie Stansfield: Should we continue to support the BBC as a universal public service broadcaster? 
Fiona Bruce: I don't know what that means, that sort of sigh, the noise in the room! Howard, I wanted to come to first on this because you were part of the Charter review for the BBC, the review that happens periodically to work out how much money the BBC should be given, if at all. And you were part of the review in 2004-05, and it looked at the licence fee, didn't it?
Howard Davies: Yes indeed. The short answer to your question, I would say, yes, personally. We looked at this 15 years ago and concluded, the licence fee is a funny thing in a way because it has several things against it. One is, of course, it's a poll tax. So the rich pay the same as the not so rich, and that's not normally the good way of taxing, really, because you like to have taxes which are progressive. So it's not good from that point of view. And the only thing it had going for it at the time... Well, two things really. One, was that actually people actually wanted it. There was a majority in favour of funding the BBC with a licence fee. So as economists, we sat there saying, well, why should we sit there and tell people they can't have what it is clear they actually want, even if it is a slightly odd way of doing it. What's changed now is that it's clear that only about a quarter of the population on recent opinion polls do favour the licence fee. So that has been a change over the 15 years since I last looked at it closely. So I think the question now has to be asked. The problem is that while the BBC appears on Freeview, it is not possible to determine who is watching the BBC at any one time, and determine whether you can have a subscription service or not because you are getting it through Freeview. I think in the long run, in ten or 15 years time, probably the BBC will have to move to some kind of a different funding model, a subscription model, when the technology is available to know exactly who is watching what, and then you can charge them appropriately for it. In the meantime, I have to say, I would stick with the licence fee. 
Fiona Bruce: Alison? 
Alison McGovern: I reserve the right to criticise the BBC when it does things that I don't like and puts on programmes I don't like...
Fiona Bruce: (interrupting) Feel free, don't mind me! 
Alison McGovern: ...but I think we all have to be a bit careful here, because I think there's a tonne of things that the BBC does that I can't see really a subscription service doing. I can't see anyone else doing. Most primary schools in the country watch Newsround now, which is absolutely brilliant. I can't see anybody making that for them for free. There's loads of programming that we all know of that's absolutely brilliant that the BBC does, so I think we have to be careful. Nobody should give the BBC a sort of free pass, and we should engage in our national support...national sport, rather, of complaining about the telly, and even shouting at it. 
Fiona Bruce: I'm sure people do that at this programme. I know they do. 
Alison McGovern: I'm sure they do, but I would say, let's all be a bit careful, because the BBC is an incredible national institution, like the National Health Service. Pretty unique to this country, and I can't see a paid-for subscription service doing some of the things that the BBC does. 
Fiona Bruce: Michael, as a former Conservative Cabinet minister, Secretary of State, what do you make of these briefings that seem to be coming out of Number 10, in the papers at the weekend? 
Michael Portillo: Do you mind if I answer the question, the main question, because I...? 
Fiona Bruce: OK. Will you do that one as well?
Michael Portillo: Yes, if you like, although that's not the area of my expertise. But I have to begin by declaring an interest, because I derive most of my income from the licence payer. (LAUGHTER). And therefore, you might be surprised when I say that I do not believe the licence fee can survive. It's partly, actually, my experience of making films. I make films with very young people. And the young people with whom I make films do not pay the licence fee. They do not have televisions. They consume their media on their mobile phones or on their laptops. And since, I think it was about two years ago, when you went on your laptop to download, to go to iPlayer and catch up, it asks you whether you have a licence fee. You now have to answer that question, so they answer no and that blocks them out of the BBC. Therefore these young people now have no connection with the BBC. They don't even watch the programmes that they make with me because they have no access to the BBC. And the BBC is losing its audience. And why? Because these people have any other number of opportunities to watch television, and they consume it as they wish and when they wish. The other extraordinary thing is that when you are abroad, you cannot consume the BBC. Or not BBC television, anyway. So even though I pay the licence fee, when I go abroad I am blocked from watching the BBC....
Fiona Bruce: (interrupting) Don't forget, the licence fee is not just for television. It's all the radio stations and online as well. 
Michael Portillo: Yes, radio is a different question and a much simpler question. But I also think that if we talk about television for the moment, there's not much evidence now on the BBC that it is performing a public service role. I don't think there is much evidence on the BBC now that they are doing things that other people could not possibly do. I mean, for example, in arts, there is almost no arts programming now on BBC television. If you want to see arts you would watch Sky Arts...
Fiona Bruce: (interrupting) Wouldn't you watch BBC Four? 
Michael Portillo: But I want to the more important point, that not only can British people not watch the BBC abroad when they have paid their licence fee, foreigners can't consume the BBC directly either. And there are eight, nine billion people out there who would be very keen to consume the BBC...
Fiona Bruce: (interrupting) You know there's BBC World? I don't want to keep butting in in the interests of accuracy... but there is BBC World. In the interests of accuracy. 
Michael Portillo: BBC World is not a real channel. The BBC is not proud of BBC World, seriously. 
Alison McGovern: I think the people who work on BBC World are probably proud of BBC World. 
Michael Portillo: I'm not sure that they are. (LAUGHTER). But the point is that, 20 years ago, Netflix was a corner shop renting video tapes. Today it is spending $10 billion per year on content. 20 years ago, the BBC... 
Fiona Bruce: (interrupting) And it is billions in debt. 
Michael Portillo: 20 years ago the BBC was a global name. Today the BBC is wedded to the licence fee. It is like a polar bear on a receding piece of ice.
Fiona Bruce: Hang on. I need to get the rest of the panel in. Ash?
Ash Sarkar: But look, I've got really strong feelings about this. I think that the BBC needs to adapt or die, but it shouldn't adapt in the direction that Dominic Cummings and his team at Number 10 are angling for it to change, which is to privatise, commercialise and no longer be licence funded model. I think the way it needs to adapt is to first be established on a permanent statutory footing so you don't have this brouhaha every ten years over the Charter renewal, in which the government of the day is able to exert a tremendous amount of political pressure by essentially holding the BBC's continuing existence hostage. I also think we need to look at things like a digital licence fee, and also taxing some of these big digital multinationals like Netflix, like Facebook, like Google, which make tremendous amounts of money in this country. I know there are a lot of people on the left who at the moment are furious with the BBC for elements of its news and current affairs coverage during the general election, and I share a lot of those criticisms. But what I would say to those people on the left who are currently saying they may as well support defunding the BBC on political grounds, is that handing over the British broadcasting environment to Rupert Murdoch, which is what would happen if we no longer had a licence payer funded BBC, is not a credible left-wing position. 
Fiona Bruce: George, what's going on? What is all this, all these briefings going out?
George Eustice: Well, there's going to be a licence fee model until at least 2027, so nothing is being done in a hurry anyway. The BBC is a cherished institution, there is no doubt about that. But I think both Michael and Howard have made good points, which is, just see how media has changed over the last decade with people now getting their content from smartphones, from iPads. Imagine what's going to happen just in the next seven years. So it's appropriate in my view to think about what the funding model should be and how best you should raise money to fund the BBC, because it can't make sense in the long term to still have a licence fee based on sort of conventional televisions that we grew up with in the 60s and 70s. At some point the model will need to change to reflect the changing way people are receiving their content. 
Fiona Bruce: And do you think public service broadcasting is possible under a different model? Does that even matter, do you think? 
George Eustice: I personally think it does, yes. I think there is an important role for public service broadcasting and this is where the difficulty comes. How do you fund that on a subscription only service? These are complex and difficult issues and that's why nothing is being done in a hurry and indeed, nothing much is going to change until 2027, which is when the licence fee model continues to at the very least. 
Ash Sarkar: So what about the sabre-rattling coming from your government, then, talking about the licence fee being under threat? Why do that if it's not in a hurry to change things? Is it just to exert a bit of influence over the appointment of the next director-general? 
George Eustice: I've not seen personally any sabre-rattling...
Ash Sarkar: (interrupting) You've never seen any sabre-rattling?! 
Fiona Bruce: It's all over the papers, the front page of the Sunday Times! 
George Eustice: I've learned not to believe everything you see in the papers...
Fiona Bruce: (interrupting) Come on, George! I mean, no one's going to believe that! You haven't been reading the papers?!
George Eustice: I don't believe everything I read in the papers, that's what I was saying. I never have.
Michael Portillo: Can I just say...Howard has referred to looking at things over ten or 15 years and George has just said everything is going to be the same until 2027. I don't think either one of you has an idea of how quickly this picture is changing and I'm deeply depressed by both those answers. I think the BBC may be in very serious difficulty if we wait until 2027 before we decide on a different model of how the BBC can be carried forward, not just as a means for us to watch television, but as a means of taking the wonders of the BBC to the world, which at the moment are not available in a modern form, that is to say they are not available to the individual who wants to buy a BBC programme at the moment that he or she chooses to watch it. 
Fiona Bruce: We have got very little time left, but you have had your hand up for quite some time. You may end up having the last word. 
Audience member: I just think the BBC is a national institution that we are all proud of. And I don't think anybody should be worrying about paying that licence fee. It's incredibly good value. What I think is the problem is what are we spending that money on, how much do we pay our presenters... And I'm not asking this to you, Fiona! If we are paying six and seven figure salaries to TV presenters, what does that actually say, coming back to the lady's first question of tonight, the people that we value in this country, the people that are doing really hard jobs, day in, day out, for a pittance, and why is that money going to pay people to do something here, when I think anybody in the audience could get up and present a programme brilliantly as well. Nothing controversial! 
Fiona Bruce: It's fighting talk. To me and Michael. 
Audience member: I'll do it for you next week if you like.
Fiona Bruce: OK, watch this space, watch this space. On that bombshell, I won't be sitting here again...What's your name?
Audience member: Michael. 
Fiona Bruce: Michael will be sitting here next week. Our hour is up. Just as well.


  1. Portillo's line that...'The BBC is like a polar bear on a receding piece of ice' really stood out for me. And trust Question Time to throw that one in as the final question.

    Even the irritating (smiling though my teeth) Fiona Bruce tried to turn it all into a jocular moment as the show closed out. Why not have had it as an earlier question and given it more debate.

    But yes, that final studio guest Michael, that caused all the jocularity, said that 'The BBC is a national institution that we are all proud of. And that the licence fee is incredibly good value.' What Planet is he living on?

    John....North London.

    1. Here is a new form of bias:

      Bias by supplanted question. FB has learnt from her predecessor that if the BBC presenter doesn't like the reply, interrupt the proceedings with another related question that diverts the discussion way from the crux of the matter - like a bird pretending to enter a nest a distance away from her fledgelings.

      Portillo was able to counter this tactic: ...Michael Portillo: Do you mind if I answer the question, the main question ...

  2. They didn't address Michael Portillo's point that though the funding model might not change until 2027 those 'stupid old Brexiteers' are going to die off and be replaced by non-BBC watching, non-licence payers.
    Picking up the other Michael's point, the Fionas of the BBC will get their 'gender-pay' supplements, levelling up, but the income of the BBC will go down.

    By the way, did Alison really have 1,000 kg in mind or, more likely, 2,240 lbs.?

  3. I saw that part of the programme. Portillo was on good form. His polar bear analogy cut through. He was right to critique the incredible situation where the BBC makes no attempt to sell itself to the rest of the world. It should be generating something like $1billion - $2 billion from its archives and international sales. He was right to say the BBC World channel is pathetic. He did well to fend of Bruce's use of the "diversionary question" tactic (so beloved of Dimbo), where she tried to sidetrack him on to internal Conservative politics and the "Cummnings narrative".


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