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Frozen fees mean the BBC has a licence to think the unthinkable

The frantic bargaining over the licence fee showed that the BBC has very little independence when the chips are down. If it wants to control its fate, it may have to make some startling decisions

Sunday 24 October 2010

You pays your (frozen) money and you takes your choice. Either suddenly losing 16% of licence fee cash, and seeing a £145.50 ceiling bolted into place for six more years, represents BBC "security and certainty". Or a week's worth of manic negotiation has consigned two decades of corporation strategy to history. It depends whether you're feeling pleasantly tired or frankly apocalyptic.

The BBC's negotiators say they are sleepy but happy. At least the settlement is signed, sealed, delivered. The horror of interminable bargaining sessions throughout 2011 is gone. The licence fee system remains intact, and so does the BBC Trust itself. The World Service has found a permanent nest, no further Whitehall interference required. William Hague and Jeremy Hunt can concentrate on making other people's lives miserable. Meanwhile, the pain itself is comparatively mild compared to some other wings of governance. Phew! It could all have been a lot worse.

But now try a few flakes of apocalypse with your cornflakes. Remember John Birt as director- general and his thesis of an ever-expanding corporation pounding from digital channels to online excitements to smartphones and the rest – doing everything, filling every cranny, because that was the only way to keep the licence fee system, and the independence it bestows, afloat. Does £145.50 a year until 2016 fit that crucial Birt bill? Prepare to grow more tired and less happy.

No imaginable government is going to want, or be able, to play catch-up in six years' time. No government will step back in to pay for the World Service, broadband improvements, local TV stations or Welsh soap opera. There was no independence on view as the BBC director-general and his trust chairman were faced with funding free licences for the over-75s if they didn't submit; there was just an endgame in which desperate, determined politicians held all the cards.

So: what to do now? Because the foundations of the old strategy lie broken, so surely a new strategy is needed before anything useful can be built. And that means one central argument is finally moribund – the one that says: "We have to do what we do because licence-fee payers expect the full monty from us, culturally, digitally, technologically." Chaps, the licence-fee payers can't expect that for a frozen, shrivelling fee, and you can't deliver it anyway.

You may, if you wish, blame Rupert Murdoch, the Daily Mail or the coalition. You may wave your fist at Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand – even Mark Thompson and his gallant team of negotiators. You may rue the crunch that brought the cuts. But the brute fact still remains: the licence fee, in any foreseeable economic circumstances, let alone the ones we face now, was not and is not infinitely expandable. Security and certainty are illusions (just as the "protection" offered by the trust is an illusion). The only independence you can truly look forward to is the independence you secure for yourselves.

And that, in turn, means taking some historic decisions. Consider just a few of the possibilities. Shut down some World Service broadcasting and start running ads on those stations that continue. No! But the head of the World Service has just detailed those possibilities for himself, which makes other possibilities just as believable.

Could Radio 1 and Radio 2 take ads, too? Of course they could. Why keep daytime TV churning through the wastes of the day on both BBC1 and BBC2 when one channel could do the threadbare run of Angela Lansbury series and jumble-sale reality without anyone missing or caring? If BBC3 and 4 can start at 7pm, so can much else. What's the point of rolling out Freeview, the iPlayer and many other good things and not putting a price on them? Come to that, wouldn't primetimes on weekend evenings look better with ad breaks? If news websites all around grow paywalls, why leave BBC sites open to all-comers?

The big question isn't a closet one muttered by Murdoch or hissed by the rest of Fleet Street. It's simple, but deadly earnest. If governments – dowsing sympathy for the BBC amid a welter of other cuts, playing the hardest of hardball – can blow away independence thus, what's the point of pretending that refurbishing frail defence mechanisms can put Auntie together again?

A good settlement? A victory for the future? Let's hope so. But perhaps security and certainty isn't something you're handed on a plate. Perhaps it's something – proactively, determinedly – you have to set out to win.

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