Comment: Scrapping the BBC licence fee threatens the future of journalism

Comment: Scrapping the BBC licence fee threatens the future of journalism

BBC licence fee journalism comment piece

Chris Waiting, chief executive of The Conversation, on why he fears an end to the BBC licence fee could threaten the future of the corporation’s journalism and impact the wider UK media industry.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’s recent announcement that the BBC licence fee will be frozen for two years, ahead of a review that could see it scrapped after 2027, sent shockwaves across the media industry and beyond, with many dubbing it cultural vandalism and destruction of a global brand.

The licence fee, which provides almost three-quarters of the BBC’s funding, will be frozen at £159 for the next two years, after which it will rise in line with inflation for the final four years. This means the BBC will need to find savings of circa £2 billion over the next six years, to make up the shortfall, before the corporation falls into the unknown.

While the idea of a “TV”  licence primarily linked to live broadcast is a dated concept of what TV is today, the implications of freezing and then scrapping it, without any clear alternative will not only leave the BBC high and dry but also have a devastating impact on the future of journalism.

Implications for BBC journalism

Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general recently warned staff about upcoming job cuts with more details expected in April. While the BBC is under severe pressure to cut costs as it prepares for an uncertain future, the corporation could be forced to make dramatic changes to its business model and overall approach to journalism.

For starters, reduced funding would mean a big decrease in programming and a much lower volume of news output. BBC News is currently the largest broadcast news operation in the world with more than 2,000 journalists and 48 newsgathering bureaus; this could all change. Over the last few years, BBC News cut around 500 jobs as part of an ongoing cost cutting exercise, and in the near future it’s likely we’ll see significantly more jobs go.

Likewise, local and regional news could be hit hard. In 2020, the BBC cut 450 jobs in its English regional TV news and current affairs, local radio and online news, with some local radio shows cancelled. The changes were expected to save £25 million by this year, but as funding continues to shrink, we could see a lot more job losses in regional and local news, with an increasing number of news teams merging and more programmes consolidated or cancelled.

Training is another area that could suffer. Through the BBC Academy, the corporation delivers a range of training from journalism to video production. Less funding would mean training could be reduced to the bare minimum forcing journalists to go externally or forfeit training altogether. Likewise, the BBC graduate scheme, providing opportunities for early career starters might be scaled down or scrapped.

Furthermore, if the BBC is forced to start advertising to raise funds, this would impact editorial independence making the corporation cater more towards advertisers’ key audiences such as younger generations and the wealthier. This would significantly reduce the diversity of the BBC’s programming and may force it to move away from providing something for everyone.

Impact on wider industry

At this stage, it’s hard to forecast the extent to which the BBC will cut jobs and services. Hundreds if not thousands of jobs might go, with many programmes cut, but one thing we do know is there will be huge repercussions for the wider industry.

The pool of journalist jobs in the UK will be drastically reduced, making competition for roles much tougher. More journalists may leave the profession and move into the corporate world. Journalism may become less attractive as a career prospect, meaning less people enter the sector. Also, diminishing demand could even result in less journalism courses available at universities.

[Read more: The Conversation chief exec Chris Waiting on how pandemic has boosted readership and revenue]

Preparing for a bleak future

Ahead of the government’s review of the licence fee, it’s difficult to understand exactly what the future of the BBC looks like, but one thing we know for sure, the future will be tough. From programme cuts and vast amounts of job losses to the public losing out on unbiased reporting, if the government makes the wrong move, this could even end up being the downturn of journalism.

The lobby group British Broadcasting Challenge, of which I am a member, actively opposes the BBC licence freeze and believes a better approach is not to remove the licence fee but remove funding decisions entirely from government control and political influence. Instead there should be an open, independent and representative body that will examine how the BBC should be funded and at what level, to deliver its charter commitments. Only then would we have any chance of creating the right funding model that would safeguard the BBC, shield the wider industry and protect the future of journalism.

Former BBC lobby correspondent Leon Hawthorne last month wrote for Press Gazette about why the corporation should ditch the licence fee.

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