Catholics Unplug your Televisions is an organisation that promotes religious, family and social activities within the Catholic community in preference to passive use of the broadcast media. Our membership includes clergy and laity, academics, writers and media professionals. Through our Clear Vision blog and other outreach projects we engage with society at large, commenting on the social effects of these media and the culture of the broadcasting industry. Whether acting in a religious or secular context we uphold the rights of individuals and families to maintain the standards of traditional morality in their own homes and private lives.



All interested parties are aware of the outcome of the debate over renewal of the BBC Charter. That outcome appeared to have been largely predetermined by the terms of debate set out in the preceding Green Paper. In effect, the public was denied a debate because the questions given in the Green Paper were predicated on the assumption that the BBC Charter would be renewed and that, while some slight modifications might be made, the Corporation would continue to operate under the same terms of reference as beforehand and would conduct 'business as usual' for the foreseeable future. In this report CUT sets out a framework for transition, challenging the assumptions underlying the Green Paper, and indicating the ways in which a future replacement for the BBC might operate. 


The Mid-term Funding Review

HM Government has provided that the current Charter period should include a mid-term funding review to take place between 2022 and 2024. We may safely conjecture that the BBC would wish the review to be limited to the simple matter of its requesting an increase in the licence fee and providing a variety of specious claims as to the likely results of a failure to accede to that request. There is, however, no reason why the review should not take the form of a thoroughgoing examination of the current funding model, although no change can be made to that model until after the expiry of the Charter now in force (Charter 57 (5) (c)).

It is CUT's contention that the licence fee should be phased out irrespective of whether or not our other proposals are adopted, and that non-payment of the fee should be decriminalised at the earliest opportunity. The judicial process is brought into disrepute, and public understanding of the gravity of genuine frauds upon the revenue is undermined, when the courts are used to prosecute trivial matters that are not generally regarded as criminal. It should also be noted that H.M. Government has committed itself to consider any differential impact policies might have on men and women. Failure to pay the BBC licence fee now accounts for 10% of prosecutions with 133,000 out of 189,000 of those prosecutions having been of women in 2015.  Needless to say, many of those prosecuted are unemployed people whose employability is then reduced by having to declare a conviction. It must be noted that many families regard television as indispensable irrespective of their level of household income. Those who fail to pay the fine imposed on conviction are imprisoned for a short period; if they have children this is likely to result in extensive intervention in the family on the part of their local authority's social services department. Every week about 3,000 people are prosecuted and fined up to £1,000; and one person on average is sent to prison for non-payment of the fine.

Proposals for reform

The public sector status of the BBC provides the rationale for criminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee as an instance of defrauding the Treasury. The fee is, however, paid to the BBC in its entirety (with payments being made by it to S4C), and it takes responsibility for collection of the fee and prosecution of defaulters.   

The BBC service charge should be formally designated as such; and defined in terms of a contractual relationship between it and its customers rather than, as at present, as a licence fee payable to the Treasury. Default should therefore be decriminalised with the removal of the notional element of defrauding the revenue. The large lump licence fee was devised because radio, later television, was consumed in an unquantifiable manner using equipment that allowed use of the BBC's services without indicating whether people were actually listening to the Home Service or Hilversum. The radio licence was abolished due to the proliferation of small (i.e. readily concealable) transistor radios the use of which could not be detected. The situation today has changed and is in a process of transition to a very different model of media consumption. As a matter of principle the BBC's domestic audience should be obliged to pay for its services and those who do not use the BBC should not be charged for its upkeep. There is a general move away from unquantifiable use of BBC services to measurable use accessed via internet-enabled devices. The BBC should charge directly for services received in this way; whether it does so on a pro rata basis or devises offers and packages like those given by utilities companies should be a matter for its own commercial judgement. The service charge should be phased out as the transition proceeds, being made proportionate to the amount of television accessed via television sets with abolition coming when under 20% of content is received that way. Any claim that the service charge should be payable for use of non-BBC services accessed via the internet would be completely unjustifiable.

The BBC should use sponsorship and advertising to the extent it finds commercially desirable in both domestic and international broadcasts as funding from the service charge is reduced. Responsibility for the funding of S4C should be devolved immediately to the Welsh administration which should eventually take responsibility for all subsidised broadcasting in the Welsh language. The issue of payments from H.M. Government and the devolved administrations to the BBC should be addressed in the context of radical restructuring, as discussed below, rather than at the mid-term funding review, although the review does provide a suitable opportunity to transfer funding for the BBC World Service from the FCO to the DfID.

If these proposals are adopted at the mid-term review they will leave the BBC as a functionally independent entity with its internal structures, scope and relation to H.M. Government largely unchanged. They may be adopted without reference to our further proposals for radical reforms to public sector broadcasting, or else they might initiate the transitionary process we describe below.

Expiry of the Charter term

Beyond the mid-term funding review H.M. Government needs to be realistic about the BBC's long-term sustainability. A thorough review of the purposes of public sector broadcasting cannot be delayed indefinitely; CUT would suggest that that review should take place over the course of the current Charter period so that transition from the present model may begin at the end of this Charter term.


Flattening the Media landscape

We are all aware that the BBC describes its public purposes as being “to inform, to educate and to entertain”; the question now is whether a public sector broadcaster is necessary or desirable for these purposes. If it is not, is there any purpose for which such a broadcaster might be desirable? The BBC was constituted as a public corporation (i.e. what would later become known as a quango) because it was believed that broadcasting could only develop if it were developed by a monopoly supplier with some means of deriving an income from its work. The truth of this claim was always questionable, but it is of more than historic interest as it is the basis for the notion that the BBC should have public purposes befitting its status as a public body and for the idea of universality (something for everybody). Within a decade of incorporation the original purpose of that incorporation had ceased to be relevant, if it ever was, and the BBC's public status and guaranteed income would have been recognised as obsolete were it not for a political campaign in its favour centred on the absence of alternatives, its possible usefulness in the event of war, the growing number of state broadcasters abroad, and the claim that a free market would not fulfil the stated public purposes. Even then all the claims made in favour of the BBC were highly questionable, and they can have no possible relevance now, yet this created the context in which this issue is being debated today. Our contention is that it is time to relegate all such claims, and any inferences drawn from them in the past to history and to rethink public sector broadcasting under today's conditions. Please note that in referring to the Arts Council below we do not intend to comment on the future of the Arts Council, we simply judge it likely that approximately the same functions will be carried out by a public or charitable body or network for the foreseeable future; we also use the term in the singular to refer to the Arts Council structures taken together in their totality in accordance with the original usage of the name.  

Incorporation brought monopoly status with it, enabling the BBC to use the machinery of government to destroy its UK rivals. It prevented the development of other companies based in this country and strenuously opposed all attempts to remedy the situation for as long as it could. Within a decade of incorporation, however, British listeners were able to enjoy sponsorship- or advertising-funded programmes transmitted from the Continent, and audiences demonstrated a clear preference for plural rather than monopoly provision. The BBC has never ceased to act in its own interests to retard development as far as possible, to catch up by reluctantly providing more popular programmes when rivals emerged, to lobby against any rivals, and to assert a claim (now unspoken) that, being itself a provider of a comprehensive service, no alternative to it is necessary or desirable. We would never claim that the BBC has not achieved a great deal, but would seek to remind interested parties that its achievements have all been matched elsewhere, either by commercial or advertising-funded broadcasters, or else, in the educational sphere, by Government agencies and charities. The 2015–16 consultation exercise appeared to presuppose the continuation of a large-scale, comprehensive BBC when that should be brought very much into question.

Universality is a legacy of the monopoly the BBC persuaded Mr. Baldwin's administration to grant, and is today an obligation arising from the BBC's current funding model. There are two aspects to universality, namely production and content. If all viewers (formerly listeners) are obliged to pay for the BBC, it must be obliged to provide 'something for everyone'; alternatively, it might be obliged to provide programmes of universal relevance whether or not they appeal to the audience e.g. programmes on recent or proposed legislation. On the technical side there is an obligation to maintain the infrastructure to broadcast to all parts of this country and anywhere identified as providing an appropriate audience for the World Service. There is also the associated matter of the geographical distribution of places from which the BBC broadcasts. It should be made explicit that all property held by the BBC is public property; title to any property that is owned rather than leased should be vested in a Government Department. Use of these assets should be available to other broadcasters subject to arrangements administered by the DCLG's Local Government and Public Services Group, use of all broadcasting studios (owned or leased) should be subject to similar arrangements. We would envisage a variation of terms to discriminate between commercial and community broadcasters. The sale of properties and privatisation of broadcasting infrastructure may be considered at a later date when H.M. Government finds it convenient to do so.


Public purposes: Re-evaluation and reform

Several attempts have been made to define the 'public purposes' of the BBC, beginning with Lord Reith's historic formula, but what is necessary now is not a new statement of purposes or values amplifying or clarifying that formulation, but an objective re-evaluation of what should continue to be produced and broadcast by the public sector broadcaster. A brief look at the historic formula reveals how deep that re-evaluation needs to be.

To entertain:

The provision of entertainment for its own sake is a legacy of monopoly, but what kind of a country needs a quango to entertain it? The BBC Charter 6(4) states that “The BBC should bring people together for shared experiences and help contribute to the social cohesion and wellbeing of the United Kingdom.” A modern turn of phrase, perhaps, but the notion of strengthening national identity through enjoyment of publicly-provided amusements belongs entirely to the pre-War era in which the Corporation was founded.  In any case, the dignity of our country is somewhat impugned by the suggestion that our social cohesion and wellbeing are affected by the trivialities of soap opera cliffhangers and celebrity contests. National unity is the result of celebrating the local heritage of each of the various nations and regions of the United Kingdom as elements of a common patrimony.

The BBC Charter demands excellence across the range of its services and talks about breadth of provision:

6(3) To show the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output and services: the BBC should provide high-quality output in many different genres and across a range of services and platforms which sets the standard in the United Kingdom and internationally. Its services should be distinctive from those provided elsewhere and should take creative risks, even if not all succeed, in order to develop fresh approaches and innovative content.

Creativity is not the child of bureaucracy, and it does not flourish in the public sector; furthermore, variety is the fruit of plurality of provision rather than a monolithic corporation's attempts to provide a genre mix or grow new markets. It must, however, be acknowledged that, as with an annual income of some £3.7bn from the licence fee (minus somewhat less than £80m for S4C) the BBC is by far the best funded British broadcaster, it should have the highest production quality from a technical standpoint. In entertainment, and in news journalism, the BBC sets the standard by narrowing the field. Modern technology allows for the creation of a wide variety of broadcast material, and for British audiences to have access to material created overseas, but broadcasting to television sets and radios remains highly circumscribed. Expectations as to what should be broadcast, and who should be involved in the process, are often derived from BBC norms rather than the public interest, just as BBC investment steers creative economies to its own requirements rather than those of the people at large. 

Due to the breadth of provision in visual broadcasting/television there can be little justification for the public sector broadcaster's continuing to provide television drama or light entertainment. Radio, however, appears to require regulatory reform to encourage an expansion in the market before the provision of made for broadcast audio entertainment can be dropped. The option of encouraging production companies that currently supply the BBC with entertainment and non-journalistic factual programming to form a consortium or consortia to replace the existing broadcasting platform should be explored. Plurality, and with it diversity, variety and creativity, can only be enhanced by first a reduction and then a replacement of BBC services.


To inform:

The BBC Charter requires its news broadcasting to demonstrate “the highest editorial standards” of accuracy and impartiality: “To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them: the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people's understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world. It should offer a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers, using the highest calibre presenters and journalists, and championing freedom of expression, so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues and participate in the democratic process, at all levels, as active and informed citizens” 6(1). This insults other news providers, and threatens to poach their staff, using the BBC's budget and pay/pension structures to lure 'the highest calibre' people away from their employers.

The quality of BBC news broadcasting is widely recognised and it is generally believed to be impartial on many issues, although those who examine it more carefully find biases towards social liberalism at home and abroad, and domestic policies favouring maintenance of large-scale public sector institutions. There is also a significant level of concern regarding cross-departmental collaborations enabling the Corporation to set an agenda for public debate and to shape social attitudes; close links between reporting, commentary and discussion do nothing to alleviate those concerns.  Its dominant position allows the BBC to determine the boundaries of public discussion; so its 'championing' of freedom of expression amounts, in effect, to its judging which forms of expression should have freedom. Where a decision is made to show impartiality it is demonstrated by inviting spokespeople to make contributions on behalf of particular positions on the subject in question, but norm-setting means that the entire context of the discussion will presuppose that one position is usual and other viewpoints are deviant. This is most noticeable with respect to life issues and traditional morality.

It is the BBC's status as a news broadcaster that is the basis of its claim to independence from H.M. Government, and enables it to avoid support for Government policy. There is, however, no reason why a public sector broadcaster that did not produce news programming should become more politicised than the current service, especially if neither drama nor factual/documentary programming were made in-house, nor what politicisation would entail in that context. In any case, it is entirely natural and normal that the policies pursued by the public sector should be those promoted by the elected Government.

We note that the FCO values the provision of an impartial news service as part of our country's engagement with other nations, but listeners and viewers abroad often regard the news provided by the BBC World Service as representing the opinions of the British Government because of the BBC's position in the public sector. Many people overseas are unfamiliar with the concept of a State broadcaster with editorial independence, and many other people both at home and abroad fail to see the point of such a broadcaster.

It is worth noting that the BBC Charter states “Its international services should put the United Kingdom in a world context, aiding understanding of the United Kingdom as a whole, including its nations and regions where appropriate” in the same subsection 6 (5) as that in which broadcasting news to international audiences is mandated. This strongly suggests that international news broadcasting as well as general or broadly educational programming should give due weight to all the home nations and their regions in a way which it does not at present. There might even be said to be an implicit call for the use of the indigenous minority languages in news and other international broadcasting at least in broadcasts to appropriate regions. It would be natural that news broadcasts in the minority languages would focus on the relevant places and on cultural issues relating to use of the language in question. The Council of Europe has commented adversely on the BBC's failure to give adequate broadcasting time to the Cornish language, which it limits to a single weekly news broadcast. There is also a recommendation from the Welsh Assembly that the Welsh language should be promoted across Britain as having been the historic tongue of large areas of England and lowland Scotland; the BBC's omission of any of the IMLs from its national digital platform does nothing to advance that. Failure to reflect the entirety of the United Kingdom even in national, let alone international, broadcasts indicates structural weaknesses within the BBC at both editorial and management levels. That half its employees are based in London suggests something of the nature and scale of those weaknesses.  Within the provisions of the current Charter it would be possible to address the problem by making more specific demands of the BBC through addenda to the Framework Agreement. In the future a similar approach can be used to ensure that geographical balance is delivered when news broadcasts are commissioned for international programming.

The BBC is not only crowding out commercial competition in an unjustifiable manner, but shapes the media landscape and culture as a whole in ways that reduce audience choice and narrow possibilities. The expansion of the BBC leads to reductions elsewhere. The most recent expansion, described as forming partnerships with regional media, amounts to acting as a press agency for local news; this will inevitably lead to staff reductions in local newspapers and the news websites related to them (a sector already facing considerable pressure).The BBC's employing reporters under the auspices of local publications and broadcasters will achieve little to improve the situation for regional media outlets; it can only compromise their independence, and provide a framework under which the BBC may take their place swiftly should they fail.  We do not have recent figures giving the balance between direct and graduate entrants into journalism in the BBC's regional offices, but local newspapers have traditionally provided opportunities for direct entry into the profession consonant with H.M. Government's policy of promoting apprenticeships. It is also inevitable that, as it proceeds, this partnership will result in a close relationship with Trinity Mirror and other regional news publishers. It is unclear how far the regional media partnership will include direct cooperation with the new local television stations; in any case they will certainly be affected by the reduced availability of news from other sources.

We recommend the privatisation of BBC News. Whether or not this recommendation is adopted, it should be entirely separated from the rest of the Corporation at the earliest opportunity and should have separate management structures. Retention of the news service within the public sector has led to inefficiency and perceptions of a lack of impartiality, it cannot be regarded as necessary in the context of today's media landscape, and it reduces the ability of the public sector in broadcasting to serve public purposes as defined by the democratic process.  


To educate:

Education in a broad sense provides justification for public sector broadcasting even under today's circumstances. There are three aspects to the educative function of public sector broadcasting, of which the BBC Charter addresses only the first: education of the audience, education of performers, and education of those involved in technical and creative aspects of programme-making.

Technical education can be provided via an academic route, or else in any production company through an apprenticeship system. The system could easily be formalised to allow for the award of accredited qualifications. We would envisage a significant growth in the number of companies if the public sector is radically reduced in scope, and that would lead to an increase in opportunities for creative experience. Academic approaches to creative education would become more meaningful with increased opportunities for students to broadcast even while their studies are still in progress. The BBC aspires to employ 'more than 400' apprentices 'by 2018' out of a total workforce of nearly 20,000 but does not specify their distribution across the Corporation.

Education and professional development of performers constitutes the most important aspect of the work currently performed by the BBC, and provides something of a justification for continuing to maintain a public sector broadcaster. This work is principally carried out in the field of audio (radio) rather than visual (TV) broadcasting, where ample opportunities exist in the commercial sector for talent shows and competitions of various kinds. The BBC provides work and some professional development for actors, but is not a significant contributor to their education as such. It provides rather more training and professional development for its journalists through its academy, but hires very many of them from other news providers or as graduates rather than as direct entrants to the profession. However, the Corporation should certainly be congratulated for its work across a wide variety of music genres, identifying and fostering new talent through several competitions and award schemes as well as through BBC Introducing; providing work and professional development for orchestral musicians; and giving élite mentoring opportunities through the New Generation Artists scheme. All of this work could continue under the auspices of the Arts Council.

Education of audiences may be divided between the general education of broadcasting documentary and factual programmes, and the specific education of programmes for schools and the Open University. There is no reason to suppose that fewer factual or documentary programmes would be made if they were not made by the BBC. Commercial broadcasters and websites make, commision and transmit more factual programmes, drama and light entertainment than the BBC. It is clearly necessary that programmes are made in support of specific academic curricula, but the value of the programmes depends upon their being tailor-made to the requirements of the course; they should, therefore, be commissioned by the examining bodies and educational institutions involved. If they are to appear on television or radio it is likely that a public sector broadcaster would need to carry them.

There is, however, no reason why such programmes should appear in those media rather than exclusively on the internet, nor is there any reason why they should not be commissioned by course providers or examining boards and made available on a commercial basis. It must be noted that the Massive On-line Open Course (MOOC) model has proven popular in adult education and can easily be adapted for tutoring children.

Although the BBC Charter talks about 'partnerships with educational, sporting and cultural institutions', 'commercial and non-commercial organisations', it must be noted that the structure of the BBC prevents the integration of its work with that of Government Departments and impedes collaboration with other public bodies. It is generally true to say that any partnerships that take place do so on the BBC's terms unless the partners are large, wealthy overseas broadcasters or film-makers. Partner organisations from outside the media might very well form partnerships more advantageous to themselves and more educational to the audience in the absence of the BBC. There is certainly no reason to imagine that the removal of the BBC would result in the loss of anything of value in terms of audience education.    


Independence and impartiality

The BBC exploits the ambiguity of its position, claiming independence or public status as it pleases to its own benefit; its attitude toward the licence fee is an example of this.  Whether or not any other aspects of our reform proposals are accepted, what is necessary is a clear statement that the public sector broadcaster is an executive agency of H.M. Government whose employees should observe the standards usual across the Civil Service with particular reference to the relationship with H.M. Government and any particular administration. At present 'impartiality' is interpreted in terms of independence from H.M. Government, manifested in displays of antagonism towards the administration of the day whichever Party might be in office, but impartiality is readily understood across the Civil Service. This redefinition is necessary if the work of the public sector broadcaster is to be integrated with that of other agencies and Government Departments.

The status of the public sector broadcaster should be reflected in its governance structures. There should be a management board answerable to a board of governors who should be civil servants drawn from relevant Departments. The public sector broadcaster should be accountable to both H.M. Government and Parliament in precisely the same manner as any other public office or agency.

Terms of the next Royal Charter

The media landscape has been transformed by technological advances over the course of the last decade so there could be no possible justification for the grant of a Royal Charter that would be almost certain to leave the BBC several years behind the times when it expires.

If, at the Mid-term Review, the Secretary of State indicates an intention to replace the current service with one more appropriate to modern conditions, the present Royal Charter might be succeeded by another for a two year term, followed by others for one or two year terms as necessary. If no indication is given at the Mid-Term Review, the next Royal Charter should be for a term of no more than four years again followed by successive shorter terms. This will allow the necessary reforms to be implemented without undue delay as and when they become pressing.


An Alternative in Clear Vision

The BBC achieved incorporation by making essentially fraudulent claims, and retained its status by deceit, scaremongering and self-serving propaganda campaigns. It has now become so much an established part of national life that abolition is considered unthinkable, yet a phased abolition is clearly desirable to attain the balanced media landscape necessary in the 21st century.

We set out below a set of alternative proposals for public sector broadcasting with public purposes of broadcasting in support of public policy, and acting as an organ of accountability by making the work of Parliament and H.M. Government visible to the general public.

Our proposals are as follows: 


An Alternative to the Alternative

If CUT's recommendations for new services are not adopted and a decision is made to retain a broadcasting platform on approximately the current basis with regard to broadcasting content, there is no reason why it should produce any of its content 'in house'. The dissolution of the drama, factual and light entertainment sections of the BBC, allowing for the formation of more independent companies than exist at present and the sale of movables to them, may be accomplished within a framework preserving current broadcasting structures if it is thought desirable to maintain those structures, although the purpose of doing so becomes ever less clear. If commissioning and production remain within one organisation, it will always be inclined to produce 'in house' in order to reduce costs (or apparent costs), making the quota process necessary if it is to be obliged to buy in programmes, but what is the purpose of that obligation if there is no intention to make a transition? Separation between content and delivery systems is standard across the utilities sector; why should television be different from gas or electricity in this respect? The delivery platforms may be privatised at some convenient point when H.M. Government thinks fit.



In summary, whilst abolition of the BBC would mean a substantial reconfiguration of our media landscape, nothing of any value whatever would be lost. We would instead see greater impartiality, more plurality, and increased opportunities for public engagement with the work of local and national government. Arguably, the current system might once have been useful, but it is now thoroughly outmoded, doing unnecessary work and leaving undone much that is either necessary or desirable. The sooner the process of transition begins, the sooner we will have a system fit for the twenty-first century.  If H.M. Government makes no commitment to initiate transition the Secretary of State should indicate whether she imagines that the BBC is sustainable on an indefinite basis, or whether H.M. Government accepts that it is simply delaying the inevitable. No decision should be made on this subject without taking into account the popular discontent that will result if failure to plan a transition leaves H.M. Government having to bail out the BBC when the system collapses because people refuse to carry on paying for services they do not want just to get the ones they do.         






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