January 24, 2021
The BBC should argue for itself as a public utility, central to Democratic life
The Guardian view on the BBC: more than good value | Editorial
Since its foundation in 1922, the BBC has had powerful enemies, usually commercial rivals, who think that it is “too bloody big, too bloody pervasive and too bloody powerful”, to quote the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, still reportedly in the running to be made chair of the media regulator Ofcom. But since 1986, when the Peacock report ushered in a move from regulation to competition in broadcasting, this claim has been less and less true. The more competitors the BBC has, the less market share it has, and the less “universal” it risks becoming; in turn, the weaker becomes the argument for the licence fee. It is an ever-tightening circle, quite convenient for the BBC’s enemies. The success of streaming services such as Netflix – which this week announced that it has topped 204 million subscribers – has heightened the problem, though the BBC remains comfortably the most used media brand in the UK.
Last week, a National Audit Office report cast stark light on the BBC’s difficulties. Interestingly, 80% of 16- to 24-year-olds do use the BBC – but almost half of them do not watch BBC TV channels on a weekly basis. And the most damaging recent enemy of the BBC turns out to have been the former chancellor George Osborne, whose insistence in 2015 that the BBC take on the cost of licence fees for the over-75s (an expense previously borne by the government) is significantly harming the corporation’s income. The BBC, after a public consultation, has begun charging those over-75s who are not on pension credit, but it is still unclear how much this will recoup compared with the £745m it would have received had Mr Osborne not taken that drastic step. Between 2017-18 and 2019-20, licence fee income declined by £310m.
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