Andrew Neil has praised the BBC in an appearance in the House of Lords, describing its performance in the face of licence fee cuts as “remarkable”.
But the veteran broadcaster suggested the levy is no longer fit for purpose.
Neil proposed a replacement to the licence fee that would see certain “core BBC” services such as news and arts coverage provided for free to all. But he suggested “ratings winners” like Strictly Come Dancing should be subscription-only programming.
Despite the proposals and current government opposition, Neil said he believed the licence fee would be renewed once again in 2027.
He also defended the broadcaster against claims of partisanship, suggesting instead that broadcasters in general tended to have a “metropolitan” bias that saw them skew left.
The BBC vs the streamers
“The problem with the licence fee is that the licence fee is both a wonderful asset – not many businesses can count on £3.75bn of guaranteed income a year – but it’s also a straightjacket.
“Because even £5bn is not enough to run a full television network with international visions these days – nowhere near enough. And yet because of the mechanism of the licence fee now it inhibits the BBC raising money from elsewhere.
“There’s always a big argument [with] commercial broadcasters – ‘Why are you muscling in on our territory?’
“Plus it seriously limits the amount of money it can borrow, because the Treasury is always breathing down its neck.”
Neil said the BBC had been struggling to keep up with commercial and streaming television in the face of repeated real-terms cuts.
“The BBC has never lost its imperial mission to do everything. Which was fine when it was only the BBC, or perhaps BBC and ITV, but it’s very difficult when other people can do things better and have more resources to do some things better…
“In real terms, there is a cut every year. It’s actually quite remarkable how well the BBC has continued to perform – not many other public services have taken a 30% cut in real terms and managed to do what they’ve been doing.”
He contrasted this, in particular, against the substantially larger sums US streamers spend per hour on programming compared with the BBC.
Culture secretary Nadine Dorries announced in January that she was freezing the licence fee for two years so that it would not rise in line with inflation. Dorries also indicated she intended for the current licence fee settlement, expiring in 2027, to be the last.
“The easy way out, the most comfortable way out, is just to continue with the licence fee,” Neil said. “And I suspect that is what will happen again. It usually is [what happens]. And that’s fine, you know, and it’ll be trebles all round at Broadcasting House and the politicians will have swerved a bullet about doing something more controversial.”
Neil said the BBC “has always been wonderful at closing down any debate. From the Peacock report in 1986 – which just ended up in the wilderness – to other debates about alternatives to the licence fee.
“I think people just need to stand back and say: ‘Is a funding mechanism which has served the BBC well – and served the country well – is it appropriate for what will become the fourth decade of the 21st century?”
Andrew Neil’s alternative to the BBC licence fee
Neil said he opposed the idea of a full-subscription model for the BBC, saying “we need to continue to have a public service broadcaster”.
“Let’s define what public service broadcasting is, and let’s continue to fund that publicly, because it’s public service broadcasting. And I will call that ‘Core BBC’. And that will be available free to everybody.”
Neil said news would have to remain in the remit of “Core BBC” because, in his view, streamers had not yet proven an ability to do news programming.
These parts of a reformed BBC, Neil imagined, “would be financed through a commission for Public Broadcasting, which would be financed directly by the taxpayer, and the money would be – like the Arts Council – there would be a gate between politicians and the broadcasters.
“And then the rest of it, the Strictly, the drama, the ratings winners and so on, would be like HBO in America – you would pay for a subscription.”
Neil said this avoided losing the values of the BBC, but could free the corporation up “to do more international deals, to borrow more – one of the easiest ways to borrow is against subscription income”.
Former BBC director-general Greg Dyke, appearing alongside Neil in front of the committee, said he saw a problem in the BBC’s regional programming.
“Our democratic structure in this country is going to be undermined if we’re not careful by the fact that the regional press is in near collapse.
“You go to your local newspaper now and find one journalist, you’re doing well.”
One of the jobs of the BBC, Dyke said, was to provide “better regional coverage than we’ve got. And I think that can be done by breaking up the signal in different areas. That will cost money, but I think it will be worth doing because I think it’s important to add to the whole democracy.”
Andrew Neil on BBC bias
Both Dyke and Neil disagreed with concerns of a partisan left-wing bias at the BBC.
Dyke said: “Oddly, I believe that all governments dislike the BBC in the end and all oppositions grow to like them.”
But he added when he was director-general, “I was concerned about the south of England bias.”
Neil echoed the point, saying: “I have never found – with some exceptions because it’s a massive organisation and has a massive output – that there is any intentional bias… I don’t think that’s how it operates.
“It is, by the very nature of its being, as a metropolitan institution, biased. In the sense that it reflects the biases of the metropolitan world, which are different from the biases of the red wall – or even in some areas of the blue wall.
“And it doesn’t make any difference if you move stuff out of London to Manchester – which by the way is a more left-wing city than London – or to Glasgow – which is a much more left-wing city.
“None of that works. If you look around the world, it’s just the nature of that kind of broadcasting.”
Picture: Parliament TV screenshot