the media and entertainment union
a sector of Prospect

1 October 2009

BECTU general secretary, Gerry Morrissey, last night called on broadcasters to unite around a single proposal to address the funding gap for public service broadcasting.

Chairing a packed fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference, BECTU's leading official, declared that the unions were not opposed to more money going to the commercial sector but insisted that top-slicing the BBC's licence fee was not the solution. 

Culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw MP, the BBC's chief operating officer, Caroline Thomson, the NUJ's Jeremy Dear and John Grogan MP were the key speakers at the event.  

Send a 'don't top slice' postcard

Whilst Ben Bradshaw pledged his support for the BBC and insisted that "the Labour Party will always support the BBC and the licence fee and would never sell the BBC down the river," he also argued that the BBC had to "establish its legitimacy in the digital age".

Speaking with regret about the current state of commercial regional news, where the "service and content was deteriorating", Mr Bradshaw reiterated that the government wants to use the underspend from the digital switchover monies (funds managed by the BBC)  to deliver regional news pilots in Scotland, Wales and England from 2013.

He went on to say that only the continued use of these funds would present a sustainable solution to the gap in funding for public service broadcasting (PSB). The Digital Britain report proposes that 3.5% of the BBC licence fee (equivalent to £130m at today's level) should be made available to commercial operators. 

In reply to Mr Bradshaw, speaker after speaker, urged the minister to examine other alternative sources of funding to maintain a system of multiple and diverse news provision and quality output generally.

Arguing against top-slicing, Caroline Thomson, urged the minister to seriously consider taxing broadcasters for their use of digital spectrum.

"We will persist in opposing top-slicing; it's about our relationship with the licence fee payer .... top-slicing of 3.5% will not in the end be containable ... and will be a step too far which will alter the ethos and the way we are able to run the BBC."

"It [top-slicing] will be a slippery slope." she said.

Jeremy Dear, reminded the audience about the significant sums which could come from industry levies if only the government was prepared to open up to other suitable alternatives.

 "It is not a question of resources but a question of will." he said. 

The IPPR report commissioned by BECTU and the NUJ demonstrates that up to £250m a year could be raised by levies using a system which works well in many countries. 

The BBC is a global success story

The meeting was unanimous in its opposition to James Murdoch's recent declaration that only the market guarantees independence.

There was also recognition that the BBC is a standard bearer - "a public service, global success story funded by the public" to quote Jeremy Dear -  which should not be forced to cede space to those that would serve us a diet of Fox News or Berlusconi TV.  

"We should stand unashamedly for PSB. Our democracy is too important to be left to the market," Jeremy Dear continued.

John Grogan, MP for Selby, a long-standing supporter of PSB, provided a welcome humourous inject to a lively meeting when he reproduced an exchange between a Fox News reporter and Rupert Murdoch in which the media magnate was permitted to dictate the terms of the questionning.

Commenting that he and Ben Bradshaw were likely to be faint memories in a couple of generations, he hoped that his contributions as a politician would be marked by securing a better and stronger BBC. 

The meeting pondered, given the consensus that the BBC is a much valued public institution, albeit not without its flaws, why the BBC is under attack having delivered on the government's digital agenda?

Constituency speakers too, urged the minister not to pursue an unpopular proposal which would cause the BBC to lose control of the licence fee and ultimately do damage to UK broadcasting.  

Luke Crawley, BECTU's assistant general secretary, focussed on this aspect when he advised the minister that there "are no votes in pursuing the licence fee" and that a decision to top-slice the BBC's income would damage the Party's showing at the election. 

Mr Bradshaw reiterated that the government had yet to conclude its thinking on the issues and that all submissions would be considered.