For all the BBC’s faults, it would be folly to scrap the licence fee

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The BBC Charter comes up for renewal in 2016 and, over the next year, whichever party is in office faces a difficult decision: what to do about the licence fee?

As the BBC’s many critics argue, it is peculiar to levy a tax – £145.50 a year – on virtually every household to pay for an old-fashioned terrestrial broadcaster in the internet age. As Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman points out, there are plenty of MPs who dislike the whole concept of public service broadcasting and would like to please its private sector detractors by dismembering it.

The success of Sky proves that quality television can be run commercially, and subscription channels, such as America’s HBO, show that even elite programming can be funded on a voluntary basis.

And the BBC has many imperfections, including a vast bureaucracy and a very public sector attitude to cost: refurbishing Broadcasting House cost vastly more than the benchmark for similar central London buildings.

My perspective is different – and personal. Thirty years ago I was a television journalist in New Zealand. By common consent New Zealand broadcasting punched well above its weight. It reported extensively on local and global issues, covered sport and the arts with equal flair and was internationally regarded as being on a par with its foreign counterparts to whom it exported both programming and talent.

I was one of those who urged the full-scale commercialisation of public service broadcasting in the 1980s, and successive governments did precisely that: welcoming a plethora of advertising-driven channels and abolishing the licence fee.

I was wrong. Today, television in New Zealand is what the head of America’s Federal Communications Commission described as a “vast wasteland”. He added that wholesale commercialisation had brought “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”

The BBC – like the British media generally – is often its own worst enemy. But it is extraordinary that an island off the coast of Europe, with less than one per cent of the world’s population, consistently turns out news, drama, culture and sport that is consumed and respected globally. It would be tragic to put that at risk.

German lesson
A welcome return to growth in the eurozone has lifted the spirits of stockmarkets, but don’t reach for the champagne just yet. This modest uptick has been driven almost entirely by the German economy roaring back to health. Yet again, the economic primacy of Germany is in stark contrast to the stagnation elsewhere. If the eurozone is to thrive, it needs to look at Germany and learn a thing or two.

Bankers’ payback
In the midst of the low politics that come with election campaigns, serious issues are being raised. Ed Balls, who enjoyed a constructive relationship with the banks when City minister, has suggested extending the period in which bankers’ bonuses can be clawed back for bad behaviour from seven to 10 years. This is a long time, but there are situations where it would seem appropriate for senior bankers, given the systemic importance of their role.

Good Judge
It is very good news that Barbara Judge will be taking over as chair of the IoD in April. I met her many years ago and greatly look forward to working with her. The fact that she has a transatlantic background – the youngest-ever SEC commissioner in the US and former deputy chair of the UK Financial Reporting Council – means she will be well placed to reinforce our historic role as the global home of good corporate governance.

Simon Walker will host an election night event at 116 Pall Mall on 7 May (from 8pm). He and IoD chief economist James Sproule will discuss how the outcome will affect business. Tickets cost £35 (plus VAT) for members. To register, visit iod.com/electionnight

Simon Walker is the IoD’s director general

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About author

Simon Walker

Simon Walker

Simon Walker served as director general of the IoD from September 2011 until January 2017, having enjoyed a career spanning business, politics and public service. From 2007 to 2011 he was chief executive of the BVCA, the organisation that represents British private equity and venture capital. Walker has previously held senior roles at 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, British Airways and Reuters.

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