23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 12


Tim Allan says we

all pay for BBC trash television

FLICK through last week's Radio Times and you will find that one channel was showing some pretty remarkable programmes. If you had tuned in last Wednesday, you could have seen Porn Star, described as 'A visit to the set of an adult film shoot at a house in California, featuring interviews with the director and one of the stars, Julia Meadows.' At 9.50 p.m. on Friday you could have caught Nude TV, in which. apparently, 'the most private and misunderstood part of a man's anatomy is laid bare'. And if that doesn't turn you on, how about, Toilets: Fear, Phobia and Fetish, a documentary on Saturday 'uncovering some of the secrets behind closed cubicles'?

So which trashy satellite channel has stooped so low as to compete for viewers by screening porn and crap? Well, it's the BBC, actually. The Corporation's new digital channel, BBC Choice, appears to be packing its late-evening schedule with precious little else. Its early-evening schedule is hardly more highbrow. Last week it managed to cram in 26 hours of gameshows and 12 hours of showbiz news and chat.

And the great news is that the BBC has asked the government's permission to dou ble the channel's 1.50 million annual budget, and to rename it BBC3. The proposal is currently on the desk of Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, but since the government has already given the BBC the necessary funds, the plan is expected to get the go-ahead.

As Ms Jowell approaches her decision, it is a good time to reflect on the racket that the BBC has become, Here's the deal. Everyone under 75 with a television — irrespective of their income or the channels they watch — is forced to pay a tax, the licence fee, to fund the BBC's output. If you think it's bad value and don't pay, you risk going to jail. The BBC can spend this money on whatever it likes. The BBC's management is accountable only to the Corporation's own board of governors, who are very much part of the firm. The economist Gavyn Davies wrote a report arguing that the BBC should be given millions more to spend. Within months, he was running the place as chairman of the board of governors.

Most of the money goes on channels everyone can see, such as BBC1, but an increasing amount goes on new digital channels like BBC Choice, which you can only see if you are in the 35 per cent of homes that have digital television. So millions of people are paying for programmes like Porn Star and Nude TV, but cannot actually watch them. You can imagine their frustration.

And the tax — already /109 — is guaranteed to increase by 1.5 per cent above inflation every year until 2006. In early 2000, when revenue projections for media companies resembled the launch trajectory of the space shuttle, the BBC successfully persuaded the government that it needed huge funding increases. No other public service has this sort of guaranteed boost stretching far into the future: not the health service, not our schools, not our railways. Now, as the rest of the media sector nurses its dotcom hangover, the BBC's income is spiralling upwards.

How does it manage to pull this off? And how does it stand a chance of convincing the government to increase the amount it spends on digital channels?

Certainly not by the use of rational argument, The BBC claims that it will help the country switch to digital by launching BBC3. aimed at 18 to 34-year-olds. But there are literally dozens of digital channels already catering for people in this age-group, most of whom have gone digital already. If encouraging take-up among the digital refuseniks was really the rationale, the BBC should launch a channel for the over-65s, but that doesn't quite get the juices flowing at Broadcasting House.

The truth is that with Greg Dyke as director-general, the BBC sees itself increasingly as a commercial player, aiming to grab market share from other digital channels. By doing so with 'free' services funded by everyone, it distorts the market and undermines competition. This is not only unfair on commercial operators, who have invested billions creating the multi-channel world that the BBC is now exploiting; it is also profoundly unfair on licence-fee payers. Already funded by a regressive poll tax, the BBC is increasing the inequity of the licence fee by taking money off everyone to pay for services that only a richer minority can watch. In New Labourspeak, it is redistributing vast resources from the many to the few. No wonder Gavyn Davies's own report found that less than a third of poorer people thought that the licence fee was good value. So why does the government keep meeting the BBC's demands? in order to get its guaranteed funding increase, the BBC had to convince Downing Street's media policy adviser. He is a super chap, extremely talented, best man at my wedding no less. But he is also a BBC fundamentalist. His previous job was as John Birt's policy adviser, This time round, to get approval for BBC3, the BBC will have to convince the current Downing Street media policy adviser. Who is another extremely gifted guy and slick operator. His previous job was at the Beeb, too, in its policy unit. It will also be targeting Tessa Jowell's political adviser at the Department of Culture. A more likable bloke you could not meet. And before joining the government he was a senior executive with . . well, take a wild guess.

Of course, I am sure that all these advis ers leave their employment history at the door as they assess the BBC's proposals, but it hardly gives encouragement to the commercial sector to see such similarity in their employment histories. And if the Corporation's influence at the heart of government doesn't do the trick, it will have to rely on schmoozing MPs. Fortunately, we licence-fee payers fund an extremely large lobbying department for just this purpose, and the Beeb's chief lobbyist is the only one in Westminster allowed an access-all-areas pass. Sweet.

This country has a choice. It can either continue to increase the £2.5 billion of public money spent on programmes like Toilets and Nude TV, by a corporation regulated by no one, whose funding is approved by former employees now in government, and whose aim is to drive commercial operators to the wall. Or it can call a halt to the BBC's expansionary ambitions. It can define what we actually want to spend public money on and what should be left to the market.

The BBC is now a nakedly commercial beast. Unless it is kept in check it will devour all in its path. It has become a world-class rip-off, robbing the poor to provide for the rich, and it should not be allowed to expand still further.

Tim Allan is managing director of Portland and an adviser to BSky,B. He worked for Tony Blair between 1992 and 1998.