The word 'arrogate' is not one you hear used regularly and even then not correctly. But a supreme example of it in action happened a couple of weeks back during the government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). Next to the distraction of proposed cuts to child benefit, the question of the budget of the BBC was always going to be an afterthought. But by freezing the licence fee for the next 6 years, the BBC is effectively being handed a 16% cut in real terms. In addition to these "stealth cuts", the corporation also agreed to absorb £340m that currently comes out of general taxation to pay for The World Service, S4C and BBC Monitoring.
Even at its double-counting best, the previous government never quite had the chutzpah to arrogate the BBC licence fee as part of Whitehall spending. But the licence fee that users like you and I pay has now been co-opted into deficit reduction, as part of Gideon's "you're all in this together" blitz spirit. At a time when more of us will be spending more time in front of the TV than ever, as the cuts and tax rises reduce our opportunities to go out, it's as though it's been decided that even programme quality must suffer its fair share too.
People outside the UK must look on with a sense of bafflement as to how the BBC is funded. A poll tax upon all owners of a television pays for 8 TV channels, 11 national radio stations, 24-hour rolling news coverage, a network of local radio and a comprehensive website. The breadth and depth, not to say quality, of its output is extraordinary by any standards, and the funding model, whose collectivism is a relic from a bygone era, confounds conventional thinking about the power of free markets to satisfy demands. Like the NHS, it is a national treasure whose idiosyncrasies should doom it to failure, yet as a representation of who we are as a nation, it is more emblematic, I would argue, than the Union flag itself.
More baffling to me is everyone's apparent willingness to accept these cuts. The inherent weakness of the BBC's position is the fact it cannot set the licence fee itself, but rather must curry favour with the government of the day, in order to secure its future. The speed at which this deal was done caught many by surprise, and prompted a lot of use of the word "challenging", maybe before they had time to say "wait a minute...". Conscious of not wanting to be seen as being out of touch with the public mood, the BBC has grabbed the lifeline of another 6 years of licence fee, barely pausing to consider the political implications of the quid pro quo. They are Audley Harrison to the Chancellor's David Haye.
The FCO always funded the World Service, because it recognised the political nature of its work, and how ridiculous it would be to ask British TV viewers to pay for its outreach programme. But for all the good the World Service undoubtedly does, surely the next logical place to put its funding would be into the ring-fenced Overseas Development Budget. Why is it any more politically palatable for my licence fee to pay for this service now than it was 10 years ago? Especially at a time when its core operating budget is facing cuts that will affect output. Likewise, is there no part of the Welsh office that could pay for S4C? What could be more important to the people of Wales than a TV station in their own language? Or, if it isn't that important to them, then cut it adrift and see if it can attract any EU money for spurious cultural preservation programmes.
We will be forced to pay above inflation price increases for everything from train fares to toilet seats over the next few years, for no extra increase in quality. Yet the one area where an increase in quality would have a positive impact on people at all points on the socio-economic spectrum will be beggared by a government packed with a privatiser's ulterior motive. Today the same government announced they wanted to measure the success of their policies by taking a sample of people's happiness (story here). I'd suggest the first thing they could do would be let the BBC do what it does best with both hands free.
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