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15 April 2016

Is it time to mutualise the BBC?

Written by: Shauna McCarthy, Associate Director at Edelman

Corporate Reputation, Government Affairs, Media

Recent press reports about the contents of the government’s white paper on the future of the BBC made me recall a debate organised by Social Market Foundation where Prof Diane Coyle, former Deputy Chair of the BBC Trust, outlined her perspective on the questions raised about the BBC’s future by the Charter Review. It’s no surprise that during that discussion talk turned to how the BBC is, or should be funded. One of the participants raised the idea of our licence fee being shares, or a mutualisation of the broadcaster instead. Whilst it wasn’t debated further, it’s an interesting approach to consider.

I’d like to explore whether people would be more inclined to care about the product if there was the option to purchase shares.

The recent public consultation on the future of the BBC attracted 192,000 responses (bear in mind that 96% of UK homes watch TV or live TV on another device) and it transpires that 177,000 of those submissions came from members of a campaign group.

The consultation was designed to ask the general public about the future of ‘their BBC’, yet a tiny percentage of people took the time to respond to it. If those who were truly passionate about the broadcaster had access to shares, or at least an invested right to discuss its future, would the turnout be different?

Of course with any equity model you risk the product being broken up by parties intent on changing its future – or its purpose. Or the share buying process being dominated by those with a vested interest, but if share holdings could be capped – arguments of legality aside – that would ease the problem. Public money currently funds the wealth of programming across BBC radio, TV and online that we have today. However, whilst Twitter alights with worthy praise for the likes of The Night Manager, The Fall or Doctor Foster, there’s as much delight in NetFlix’s Making a Murderer or House of Cards, or radio documentary Serial from the creators of This American Life. There’s no denying that there should be a range of choices for those of us who just want to consume great content. However, if the ownership of the BBC changed, could that possibly address the common complaint from independent programme makers that the BBC is difficult to work with? A private company focused on fostering relationships between creator and broadcaster for programming and commercial purposes could alleviate that. Private investment could make the BBC bold and friendly.

A share model may also serve to answer the difficult question about who should pay for those aged over 75 who currently get a free licence. The corporation needs to absorb £750m to cover the growing, aging population and this existing ‘right’ – clearly not an ideal situation for a business already under enormous financial pressure. Even if as announced recently the BBC asks some over 75s to give up their free licence, or contribute to some of the cost, it’ll be a heavy burden.

Many consider the existing licence fee to be an unfair tax, particularly when they feel that the BBC isn’t producing content ‘for them’. On current area of complaint is that local radio no longer has the presenters listeners used to love, who talked about their local area and knew how to pronounce local place names – instead they’ve been replaced by someone who covers the whole country. There has always been significant noise about news coverage being in some way ‘biased’ and feigning impartiality.

A share model like this may not be the answer, but the choices do appear limited. The BBC has already said that a subscription set-up would be too complicated and expensive, yet paying for what we watch in some way on another is not only accepted, but popular. As consumers we’re more demanding than ever when it comes to what we want to watch and when. Great TV content may spark those ‘water-cooler moments’ all writers and producers want to hear about, but the reality is – someone has got to pay for it.

With Charter review likely to reach its consequent stage next month, the search for that payment model will continue. What is imperative though is whatever decision is taken, that relevant, inspiring content is made across news and programming, at a local, national and global level.

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