Will BBC cuts kill the licence fee?

BBCThe BBC's announcement that it is to make cuts of 20% across the corporation and axe 2,000 jobs marks a watershed moment. Cuts of that scale will inevitably have an impact on the service provided. They are being made, says BBC management, because the licence fee was frozen at £145.50 until 2016-17. By then, the BBC's service is likely to be so poor that most of us will demanding the licence fee is either cut or scrapped altogether.
Of the 2,000 jobs that are to go, 800 will be in news. That's a key service that is labour intensive – it takes people time to find stories and report them properly. Head of news Helen Boaden says the losses will be offset by the creation of new jobs.

This explanation is typical of the patronising, dumbed-down rubbish that too often masquerades as news and analysis on our 'public service broadcaster'. If the job losses were really going to be offset, there would be little or no saving to be made. Boaden's honeyed words can't disguise the bitter reality.

Sports and entertainment

BBC One will have its entertainment budget cut, the sports rights budget will be cut by 15%, radio drama will be reduced and news will no longer cover irrelevant stuff such as arts, culture and science. More material will be syndicated across local radio, making it less local and therefore less interesting.

In London, where I live, the local station faces cuts of 25%. Among those facing the axe from BBC London are award-winning broadcaster Danny Baker, the enormously popular Robert Elms show – which is a real London treasure – and Eddie Nestor's lively Drivetime show. He probably asks too many probing questions for the liking of the timid bureaucrats running the BBC.

Similar stories can be found across the BBC's local networks. As national Union of Journalists' General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: "The reality is that the BBC will not be the same organisation if these cuts go ahead. You cannot reduce budgets by 20% and pretend that the BBC will still be able to be a world class broadcaster."

She's right, and this is exactly what long-standing opponents of the BBC have always wanted. The BBC has always been able to point to the quality of what it does to defend a licence fee that amounts to just under 40p a day. That will no longer be the case, but instead of the service being wrecked by its opponents, it is being wrecked by its own management.

Commercial channels

From what the BBC is saying, it clearly hopes that by not announcing the closure of entire services it can ensure public opposition is fragmented. Instead, it is reducing quality across the board and weakening its own case. As the BBC gets worse, rival commercial channels will continue to grow, unencumbered by restrictions on fund-raising and able to charge more to customers.

The argument that the BBC provides quality that others cannot will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible to sustain. Licence-fee payers will question the value of paying anything at all. Then there are the knock-on effects – take two very different areas of the economy – science and sport.

With a reduction in science coverage, a key part of the economy will slip further into the background, and misinformation and misunderstanding of vital issues will grow. Still, at least we'll be spared the report on the dearth of science graduates undermining UK competitiveness – there will be no one there to do it.

London local coverage

Sports coverage in London is being slashed. One area to go is the popular Non-League Show. No commercial broadcaster will see sufficient value in that, so a vital part of the game will slip from view. Even at professional level there is dismay, one London League club press officer I spoke to today was very pessimistic about the knock-on effects.

The NUJ is calling for the licence fee settlement to be re-examined, "especially given what has since emerged about the close relationship between the government and Rupert Murdoch at the time the deal was done".

There will be much said about 'feather-bedding' and plenty of fatuous statements about unfair subsidy (for which see the banks) and how it's really all just about reducing the number of paper clips used at the corporation. The reality is that the battle is now on to save the BBC from itself.
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