BBC standards at risk from a digital fixation

The BBC must rethink its priorities, but in the light of Davies report suggestions, Peter Ainsworth says extending digital services should not be top of the list

Gavyn Davies has produced a clever report, but one which looks likely to please nobody. The BBC is not at all happy that its request for an additional £650m a year by 2006 has been snubbed by the panel. Nor is it pleased by the proposal to sell off BBC Resources and 49 per cent of BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm.

Commercial broadcasters should be relieved that Davies has fought shy of recommending that the BBC should compete for advertising as well as for audiences; but they are not pleased by the digital licence fee proposal, however cunningly structured.

And the public will not be pleased that the BBC is back, cap in hand, supporting what amounts to a tax on a new technology.

Viewers have yet to find the merits of digital television entirely convincing, but at least (as far as the BBC was concerned) they were led to believe it wouldn’t cost more than the £101 a year they already pay.

The Davies panel, however, deserves some sympathy. This was never going to be an easy brief, but it was made harder by the chairman’s prior conviction that the BBC does need more external revenue if it is to participate fully in the digital world and that the digital licence fee is the neatest way of achieving it.

But this approach involved side-stepping the obvious question which needed asking before all others: what can the licence fee be reasonably expected to fund?

There is a need for the BBC to redefine its mission as a public service broadcaster in the light of the radically changing media environment. While this inevitably means limiting what the BBC is prepared to use the licence fee for, it need not be unduly constricted.

It is often argued from within the BBC that “redefining” public service broadcasting really means cutting it back to a narrow, mainly high-brow and essentially didactic service, with limited appeal.

But this need not be so. The BBC runs the largest television production house in Europe, with a well-deserved reputation for setting quality benchmarks to which others aspire. It is important that it is allowed to continue to do so. This implies making programme content an investment priority rather than expansion of the number of services.

There is a good case for the BBC developing digital services, but as News 24 and BBC Choice have demonstrated, going digital is not an end in itself.

The public will judge the BBC on the quality of its programmes rather than on the extent of its networks. The advent of new technologies actually reinforces the need for the BBC to concentrate on producing high quality programmes: these, in the end, are the foundation on which the licence fee rests.

Peter Ainsworth is shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport

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