Time for the BBC to tune into the vision of a plc

Article by John Blundell in The Scotsman

ANDREW Neil describes the BBC as "one of the last unreformed institutions". He is right. This curious entity - not quite a quango or yet a nationalised industry - has remained inviolate since it was contrived by accident when radio was an utterly new technology and television merely a twinkle in the mind of a Helensburgh inventor.

The British Broadcasting Company was gifted its primary asset - its chunks of space on the electro-magnetic spectrum - by a Home Office totally unaware of what it was doing. The evolution of the BBC will end its cycle when the government forces the corporation to switch off these analogue signals and only transmit in digital format. This sounds a bit technical. It is. It is also crucial.

The entire £3.4 billion operation has been built on the error that broadcasting "space" was rare and had to be rationed by authority. The arrival of the three techniques - cable, satellite and internet - render these policy assumptions obsolete. It is time the BBC was gifted back to those of us who have been subject to its bizarre poll tax funding device: the licence fee. Other privatisations have consisted in us all buying back what we nominally owned already ... British Airways, British Steel, British Rail.

Let the licence certificate be deemed to be a share certificate. In future, we should all expect a dividend. My suggestion is that it be paid just before Christmas every year.

It would be unkind not to praise the BBC for some of its output. We all have our favourite programmes and prized actors. I enjoy listening to the daily Radio Four early morning advert for more subsidies for farmers. It irritates me out of bed.

The fact we have some much loved sequences does not dent my point. All these features could still be available if the BBC’s monolithic inertia was broken. The pretext behind which the BBC camouflages itself is "public service". I have never seen it defined. It seems to mean merely that the market place is far too vulgar and our betters must provide uplifting, measured or balanced output.

John, now Lord Birt, the former supremo of this singular bureaucracy described the BBC as "wasteful" and "Byzantine" and like an "unwieldy Soviet-style command economy". He spent millions on management consultants and brushed away a few cobwebs, but it remains a remnant of a Britain long gone.

We think its assets are its buildings, transmitters, talented staff and archives of past hits. In the marketplace, we would see if this was really true. My hunch is that its primary asset is the intangible one - the electro-magnetic spectrum space plus the brand, particularly overseas.

The Home Office and the Treasury astonished themselves when they sold off the spectrum space for the "third generation" phone licences. Selling off the BBC’s space would be a fascinating venture. Is it not suspicious the Treasury is instructing the BBC to switch off that tasty analogue space by 2006 ?

Most households receive torrents of entertainment and information from sources other than the BBC. Why do we need the vexatious and antique tax when advertisers would plainly pay to reach us?

Margaret Thatcher, even at her most radical, funked tackling the BBC. She let Channel Four arrive in 1982 and Channel Five has since emerged. Yet the politicians barely imagined, let alone understood, how new transmission techniques would marginalise conventional TV and radio.

The BBC has a large staff working at MPs and other "opinion formers" to preserve its poll tax fee - and increase it when they feel the urge. What is needed is a device to waken the Commons up to the popular opportunity that lays dormant in converting the licence into a dividend-paying prospect.

So anomalous is the BBC that it is not subject to the scrutiny of the National Audit Office or by the Public Accounts Committee of the Commons. It is an utterly opaque organisation dependent on our affections for particular programmes. That is no longer good enough. In calling for the BBC to be dissolved, I am not knocking its better talents. They would flourish on their own in smaller production companies. The diversity on offer would be far wider. Programmes would improve.

The ace up the BBC’s tactical sleeve is the World Service. I admire its output. It could surely be better still. Yet it is subsidised by the Foreign Office and is more an adjunct to the BBC than really part of it.

The BBC is already quietly evolving into a commercial operation. It merchandises much of its wares to other nations and is selling CDs and T-shirts. We are halfway to achieving full reform. There may be some pleasing statistical fruits to be won by converting it into a body that pays us rather than the other way round.

It would act as an amusing blip on the GDP figures ‿ is it a transfer payment or a value-adding transaction? The Retail Price Index would take a little dip as the fee dropped out of all our budgets and our dividend would come in the post instead of those threatening letters. It is only when we start to trade our licences as share certificates that the real value of the BBC can be tested &aci