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The BBC is so much more than a licence fee

Philippa Childs, Head of Bectu · 20 January 2022

The BBC is so much more than a licence fee: it’s the bedrock of British culture and an essential part of the British national story.  

In its centenary year, there isn’t a person in the country who doesn’t make use of the BBC’s incredible content and services produced by members of the Bectu union. 100% of British adults use it at least once a month, and 90% of us do so each week: watching blockbuster dramas, tuning into fantastic sports commentary and coverage, and getting the latest news both locally and nationally.   

Its unique funding model allows it to be a truly public service broadcaster – commissioning innovative content, taking a chance on British talent, and investing in jobs and newsrooms across the country as part of its £5bn contribution to the UK economy. 

The Government’s threat to scrap the licence fee and force the BBC to compete directly with the streaming giants fundamentally misunderstands the role the BBC plays in British national life, and risks the services and benefits to the UK’s economy that only the BBC provides.  

Britain’s largest classroom  

Just look at the past two years. During the unprecedented disruption caused by Covid-19, we saw an interruption to normal programming to keep the nation going in the most challenging of times.  

Parents across the country – who had to become teachers overnight – were able to use specially commissioned BBC programmes and resources to ensure their children didn’t fall behind because schools were closed. The BBC was Britain’s largest classroom, teaching 2.7m children every week. 70% of children in primary and secondary schools made use of Bitesize and 80% said it had helped improve their understanding of their subject matter.  

For those of us long out of the classroom, the BBC’s local presence across the country provided essential public health updates during an unparalleled crisis. It’s hard to imagine Jeff Bezos setting up hyper local radio stations in Burnley and Wolverhampton to help residents stay safe.   

Bringing the nation together and promoting global Britain 

At home, the BBC brings the nation together – whether it’s watching the first deaf winner of Strictly lift the trophy, tuning in to the Line of Duty finale to discover who “H” is, or cheering on the best national football teams for a generation.  

These are just some of the priceless cultural moments the nation has shared in the past year – some much-needed common joy during a period of tough restrictions on our day-to-day lives. But the BBC has long been an essential and valuable part of our national fabric, creating memories for audiences of every generation for a century: the top 10 watched moments on TV of all time were all on BBC channels.   

Further afield, the BBC plays a critical role in promoting British values abroad. In a world where malicious actors and states are spreading disinformation and undermining democracy, the BBC World Service provides accurate, reliable news to a global audience of 319m people every week. Calling the future of this soft power asset into question seems an odd way of expressing the ambition of Global Britain. 

Creating jobs, regenerating our cities and driving innovation 

The BBC isn’t just the nation’s broadcaster, it’s a truly national broadcaster – a model for the Government’s levelling up agenda, with 50% of its employees working outside of London. It’s a true Northern Powerhouse, directly or indirectly supporting 6,400 creative jobs in Salford through its presence at MediaCity. In Cardiff, the BBC adds £1.1bn to the local economy and supports almost 2000 jobs. By 2025, the BBC expects to employ 1000 apprentices as part of its £100m investment in skills and training to make the British creative sector the best in the world. 

To ensure this proudly British institution endures for another century, the Government must retain the licence fee with a sustainable funding settlement. Freezing and later abolishing the fee will necessitate huge cuts – hitting jobs, regional economies and ultimately the content that British people know and love.  

It’s not unusual for a government in a crisis to lash out, but threatening the future of a publicly funded broadcaster that is the envy of the world is an act of cultural vandalism that the public won’t tolerate. Governments come and go, but the finest public service broadcaster in the world must endure. We’ll be fighting for it.  

Article originally featured in The Times redbox.

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