Is there anything to be gained from a radical reform of PSB?

A new report into public service broadcasting has ambitious plans to abolish the BBC Trust and cast C4 out into the private sector

It’s always entertaining to have a new, holistic and revolutionary report on the future of British broadcasting. Such reports come from a rich genre with decades of tradition behind it.

Earlier, sillier treatises have advocated abolishing the BBC licence fee and urged the corporation to look towards subscription. This far-seeing argument went as follows: the BBC licence fee isn’t sustainable in the long term so it would be much better if the transition gets under way as soon as possible.

A rational conclusion to reach – except that if such advice had been taken 15 years ago something like £20bn in licence fee funds would have been jeopardised.

There is nothing so daft in Mark Oliver’s work, Changing the Channel: A Case for Radical Reform of the Public Service Broadcasting in the UK, published last week by Policy Exchange, the independent “centre right” think tank.

Not daft but certainly radical. Oliver, whose previous duties include three years as John Birt’s director of strategy at the BBC, wants to privatise Channel 4, abolish the BBC Trust, set up a new Public Service Content Trust with its own Public Access Division.

Then there would be “bottom slicing” of the licence fee. This would involve the BBC handing over licence fee money to Channel 4 to commission more programmes. The BBC would, however, be able to show them as repeats.

The corporation should also, says Oliver, not be bidding for sports rights such as the FA Cup and Formula One, and buying US TV shows such as Heroes is problematical.

Naturally, the urgency for such a fundamental review of UK public service broadcasting is so great that we would need a White Paper by the autumn, with legislation next year. Then we could have the nice new structure in place by 2012.

Obviously the BBC’s Charter and Agreement review – set by Parliament – would have to be brought forward, radically. The current charter is scheduled to run until 2017.

The Oliver magnum opus deserves special attention because of where it came from and its timing.

Fans of the Policy Exchange include Mayor Boris Johnson, and former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore is chairman of the trustees.

As for timing, it could not be better placed to fall into the arms of a grateful Tory Party looking for radical, suitably plausible policy options that will cost nothing.

The implications of this rather obscure publication need a serious look just in case the recommendations get copied into the Conservative manifesto.

First there is a systemic worry over what happens when very clever people apply their brainpower to the rather messy, evolving broadcasting structure. They simply cannot resist the attraction of coming up with shiny new templates, and if that involves pulling up a few bumbling old institutions by the roots then so be it.

Such radical reform would indeed be justified if there really were an overwhelmingly serious crisis that simply had to be addressed now. Public service broadcasting remains important for society, as much for the marketing community.

Unfortunately the evidence supporting radical change is somewhat lacking, as Oliver himself concedes.

A recent poll, he notes, found that 76% of respondents felt the BBC was a UK institution “to be proud of” and 62% felt it “trustworthy” – a rather higher score than Parliament would attract.

However, only 56% thought the BBC provided good value for money. The Ross problem has been dealt with effectively; the pay of top BBC executives has not.

Oliver goes on to point out that BBC viewing is now 34% of all TV compared with 40% ten years ago – a decent performance given the hundreds of new competing channels. BBC radio has even maintained its share over the decade.

That’s one hell of a crisis.

Oliver then acknowledges that the universal licence fee carries an “implicit obligation” to provide something for every household including the poorest and less well educated.

Absolutely. Which includes, perhaps, top sports events and high quality drama series from the US?

But the real litmus test for reports like this is how they deal with the Channel 4 question.

Grand design theorists working for centre-right think tanks always come out in favour of privatisation. They just can’t help themselves.

Mark Oliver is no exception, although he has added a neat new twist. Channel 4 would be privatised in 2012 but allowed to keep most of the proceeds to strengthen its balance sheet.

A likely story. Is there a chancellor born who would not pocket the money in current circumstances?

The real problem is that a privatised Channel 4, which would be allowed to merge with Five, would keep its public service broadcasting status for at least ten years. There would also be a minimum level of investment in new programming and it could compete for contestable funds held by the Public Service Content Trust.

Alas, private ownership, is not an easy bedfellow of public service broadcasting. At times of tension it is the profit motive rather than quality programming that wins every time.

Maybe, as the gentle economic thaw continues, it would be wise to wait to see how Channel 4 chairman Lord Burns and his soon to be appointed chief executive make out before rushing headlong to privatisation.

In the meantime we could ask Oliver to set to work on a modest, evolutionary, piecemeal report on public service broadcasting. It might not be so intellectually satisfying but it could be much more useful.