There’s no room for complacency in UK radio. To find an audience and keep it listening, we and the BBC have to do two things well – provide entertaining output and market it. Output is in our own hands and no amount of concern about the competitive imbalance between ourselves and the BBC should take our eye off this.
That said, the competitive advantages that self-regulation, unrivalled cross-media ownership and guaranteed licence-fee income give the BBC demand careful reconsideration as digital comes of age.
This is a good time to review BBC licence fee income, as the Government is doing with the Davies Panel, which reports at the end of June. We support the maintenance of an accountable, independently regulated, BBC Radio. We think the licence fee can and should be maintained as its sole source of revenue. The need to sell advertising does bring programming restraints within which we must work. BBC Radio should continue to be free of them and licence fee payers will continue to value this well beyond 2006, which is the limit of the BBC’s current charter.
The funding review the BBC faces is not supposed to concern itself with programming, yet it is being asked to consider whether the BBC needs more money to deliver value to the licence fee payer. But how can it examine the corporation’s funding without considering what the funding should be paying for? A clear answer is hard to find. The BBC’s Board of Governors and its senior management work hand-in-glove defining the “public service” remit as it suits them. There is no truly independent body appointed to ensure the BBC’s financial efficiency or to measure output value.
The BBC positions itself as the nation’s friendly guide to the digital future. It is the UK’s only cross-media conglomerate because of heavy commercial media ownership regulation, not because it is first among equals.
Should the corporation be given increased competitive advantage while its UK rivals are deliberately kept fragmented? Will it make the best digital choices on the UK’s behalf? The eventual gains are too important to put all our eggs in one BBC basket.
The need for additional BBC public funding is unproven. There are no benefits to be had from encouraging BBC Radio to weaken its competition further by creating new BBC commercial services which has been mooted, however transparent its accounting and separate its management and structure may be.
It will not be helpful to UK Limited if the only method to improve the nation’s position in the brave new world of global communications is to increase BBC funding and/or widen its base.
Surely we have more imagination than that. There are plenty of commercial broadcasters who want to play their part in the global game – why not allow them to gain the critical mass which will enable them to do so?