‘No long-term future’ in BBC licence fee, say MPs

There BBC’s licence fee model is becoming “harder and harder to justify, ” with a broadcasting levy on all households a preferred alternative, according to a major new report by a committee of MPs.

The Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which will launch the report in the House of Commons this afternoon, called for “major changes to the BBC’s governance” and “reforms to its funding” in the context of an evolving media landscape.

Outlining its conclusions, the committee called for the BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust, to be abolished and for a unitary board with a non-executive chair, who would be known as the BBC Chairman, to be put in its place.

It also said that the BBC should seek to partner more, extend its the indie quota to include local news, and reduce provision in areas where others are better placed to deliver better value for money, curbing its efforts to try to provide “something for everyone”.

“In the short-term there is currently no better alternative to the licence fee but as a minimum the licence fee must be amended to cover catch-up television as soon as possible,” said the committee.

“A broadcasting levy on all households is the preferred alternative but a degree of subscription for BBC services could be a possibility in the future.”

The report also called for the establishment of a new independent Public Service Broadcasting Commission to scrutinise BBC strategy, assess its overall performance, and determine the level of public funding it should be allocated. The National Audit Office must also be given unrestricted access to the BBC to ensure that the corporation is spending money wisely, it added.

“Over the last few years the BBC has suffered from a succession of disasters of its own making, yet it remains a widely admired and trusted institution, and fulfils many important functions both at home and abroad.

“However, when an organisation is in receipt of nearly £4 billion (US$6.2 billion) of public money, very big questions have to be asked about how that money is provided and spent, and how that organisation is governed and made accountable,” said committee chairman and Conservative MP John Whittingdale.

“In the short term, there appears to be no realistic alternative to the licence fee, but that model is becoming harder and harder to justify and sustain. We also consider it anachronistic that it is a criminal offence to evade the licence fee, it is completely out of step with non-payment of other services and penalties.

“Decriminalisation of the licence fee should be linked to other measures to prevent an increase in evasion, possibly by introducing controls for access to television services and a move to a German-style household broadcasting levy.”

Whittingdale added: “The BBC Trust has failed to meet expectations and should be abolished. It remains far too close to the BBC and blurs accountability of the BBC rather than it being a sharp and effective overseer of the BBC’s performance as a public service institution.”

However, BBC strategy director James Purnell hit back at the committee’s conclusions today, claiming that “some kind of universal fee like the licence fee is the right way of funding the BBC.”

Speaking on BBC radio this morning, Purnell said: “ The system works really well. If you introduced a subscription model for the BBC the price people would pay would go up and there would be fewer programmes.”