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Robert Halfon MP: The BBC cannot continue as a kleptocracy. We need to put licence-fee payers in charge

Robert Halfon is the Member of Parliament for Harlow.

Today will see the second reading of my Private Member's Bill, to democratise the BBC - if it is called by the Speaker. First of all, let me say that I am not a “BBC basher”. I love the BBC. I don’t even mind its centre-left leanings, because it stops Conservatives from being complacent. The BBC is a great British institution - although of course it sometimes does remind me of that old maxim of Shimon Peres, who said that television made “dictatorship impossible, but democracy unbearable".

But it is nevertheless worth having: if it didn’t exist, we would have to invent it.

I listen regularly to BBC radio, especially BBC Essex and Look East, and to the World Service, which is central to spreading liberal democracy around the world.

I do not object to the licence fee; I personally would be happy to pay double. But at the moment, the licence fee is taxation without representation. We do not tolerate that in our politics, and there is no reason why we should tolerate it in our public media.

Everywhere else in our public institutions, we are moving away from mainframe democracy to an open-source democracy, which is responsive to ordinary people. Just think of:

  • elected Police Commissioners,
  • e-petitions,
  • the right to sack your MP if they are convicted of wrongdoing,
  • the right to set up your own school,
  • local referenda on Council Tax,
  • the Localism Act, and neighbourhood plans,
  • transparency of data and public spending,
  • elected Select Committee Chairmen, and of course
  • The Backbench Business Committee.

The BBC is behind the curve on this, and it must change.

Under my proposals, every licence-fee payer would have a vote to elect the BBC Trust, the Chairman, aspects of senior salaries, and big strategic decisions such as programming or the move to Salford. I am not necessarily against the BBC moving up north: the issue is not whether this decision is right or wrong, but the fact that not one licence-fee payer has had any genuine say. To have a genuine mandate, the BBC must be democratically accountable to the people, rather than bureaucratically accountable to itself.

I think the biggest recent example of how programming at the BBC has grown out of touch was their decision over Formula 1. As a Harlow resident wrote to me, a few months ago:

“I am a big F1 fan. But today I have seen the dreadful sell out of F1 fans by the BBC with the deal with Sky... The BBC seem to have stuck its head in sand, will not answer questions, shuts blogs, removes bloggers comments, and seems to think this half a season deal is good for F1 fans in UK. It is far from good, it is shoddy, disrespectful to UK fans, who pay the license fee that keeps the BBC going, and they seem to feel that they have no need to answer to us. I have Sky, broadband, TV and phone line, but I have NO interest in any sport other than F1, so no way will I add to my Sky package.”

As The Sun reported this summer, one reason that the BBC axed Formula 1 was to save its smaller digital channels — where most programme audiences are just a few hundred thousand. By contrast, a major Grand Prix can get audiences of eight million at its peak.

Of course, Formula 1 is expensive, and scrapping it will help the BBC to fund the £85 million budget of BBC3, and the £54 million budget of BBC4. But the truth is that most of the content on these smaller channels could be shown on BBC2, or iPlayer, especially since the Daily Mail reported last month that more than half of BBC2’s schedule will now be “devoted to reruns”.

But again: what is wrong is not necessarily the decision, but the fact that licence-fee payers had no choice in the matter, and no means of redress.

I welcome the Government’s efforts to freeze the licence-fee for five years, and the work that Chris Patten is doing to address the corrosive issue of high salaries. When we think that the licence fee rocketed up 15 per cent above then inflation since 1997, clearly this does need to be looked at. I accept this. But the most corrosive issue is the fact that we are forced to pay the licence fee, but have no say over its level, or how the money is spent.

Critics of democratisation say that it would be impossible, costly, and bureaucratic. I disagree. Licence-fee payers could have a pin-code, which they use to vote online. Simple as that. And the truth is that the BBC is fantastic at running elections on various phone-in shows, quizzes, and so forth: they are probably the most professional election-running body in the country - so I don’t accept that they lack the know-how. The BBC could even call a special referendum for controversial issues, such as whether to allow extremists such as the British National party to appear on "Question Time". Senior BBC members and outside candidates could compete in primaries against each other. We could spark a genuine debate - a battle of ideas - about the kind of BBC that we want, and how it should spend our money.

I have been campaigning for the democratisation of the licence fee for a long time, raising it with the Culture Secretary and tabling several early-day motions. The reality is that licence fee payers want choice, and transparency, so they can hold the BBC Trust to account. To those who say that democracy results only in the lowest common denominator, I say that is untrue. Look at Classic FM, Sky News, and ITN: there is a real demand out there for quality, and I have a great faith in the British people.

The BBC cannot continue - dare I say it - to be a kleptocracy, indifferent to the public who pay for it. We need one licence-fee payer, one vote. What better example could there be of people power? If we really do “own the BBC”, then let us prove it, and put the people in charge.


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