The hullabaloo surrounding the Davies Committee’s report on BBC
funding has raised issues more fundamental than whether viewers of
digital television should have their licence fee bumped up by pounds
With its proposals to streamline and partly privatise the Corporation’s
moneymaking activities, the report represents one more attempt to
resolve the contradictions inherent in the role of a huge
publicly-funded body in an increasingly competitive commercial
The central question that the committee was asked to answer was how a
public body can survive and prosper in this fast-changing
Some of the most interesting responses to its report, though, have
changed the ’how’ into ’whether’. More and more people are wondering
whether the BBC has a long-term future role.
Gavyn Davies, the report’s author, thinks it has. In an interview in the
Guardian this week he said that at the core of his inquiry was ’the
whole question about market failure in broadcasting’. By this he meant
that, left to its own devices, the market would not provide the range of
programmes that go to make up ’a rich television ecology’.
Most of us, except the hardest-line believers in the supremacy of market
forces, would agree with that proposition, and that means recognising
the need for the continued existence of a publicly-funded
The critical question is whether that broadcaster should be confined to
operating in areas the market cannot or will not support, or whether it
should cover the waterfront, as the BBC finds it ever harder to do.
Like the others who have reported on the BBC before him, Davies cannot
find it in himself to challenge the sacred cow of the BBC’s funding -
the licence fee. The existence of the fee skews the argument about the
BBC’s future role. ’We all pay,’ goes the parrot-cry, ’so there should
be something on the box for everyone.’
If the BBC was funded out of general revenue, we would find it easier to
accept its becoming the broadcast equivalent of the National Theatre. It
would be limited to making expensive, high-quality television, with a
bias towards news and current affairs, leaving soaps and game shows to
broadcasters who can make money from them. The BBC will doggedly resist
such a development, but logic leads remorselessly towards it.
There are many in the industry who hope and believe that when Greg Dyke
takes over from Sir John Birt he will prove to be the best
director-general since Sir Hugh Greene in the 1960s. He may also be the
last to preside over a BBC remotely resembling anything that Sir Hugh
and his other predecessors would recognise.