Last week, the head of Virgin Media, Neil Berkett, backed the government objective to use the BBC’s license fee to help fund the £530m investment in superfast broadband across the UK.
In what will be the first time the license fee has been used for anything apart from BBC-related projects, a £340m ‘top-slice’ from the BBC budget will be used to subsidise broadband development. With the BBC’s licence fee frozen at £145.50 until 2017, it is as yet unknown how such a cut to its budget will realign other traditional expenditures in both employment and programming. One possibility may indicate steep cuts in services tailored to regional areas, Welsh language services and the World Service radio station.
Such a move would certainly be ironic – the so-called ‘superfast broadband’ roll-out is being funded so that rural areas whose local businesses are not equipped to connect to the fibre optic cables needed are not penalised. If key regional programming from the BBC (often the only provider of such services) is withdrawn, it will ultimately mean that these regions will be connected to the UK in one medium at the cost of another being withdrawn.
However, the BBC has been deflecting an increasing amount of the taxpayer’s fee to improving its internet abilities, a point Neil Berkett was keen to point out. Following his announcement of Virgin’s new 100Mb fibre optic broadband connection, he argued that many who live in rural areas do not have access to BBC content-rich services such as iPlayer:
“We are going through an evolving process here both in terms of the BBC and in terms of cutbacks, it is a changing landscape we are monitoring and watching,” he told the Guardian on Wednesday.
“It is absolutely appropriate [the BBC pays toward broadband rollout]. Every element of government spending needs to come under review. I think it is absolutely appropriate what the government has done.”
It was previously, and controversially, planned to charge a ‘of 50p a month to UK residents, a move supported by the Lib-Dems at the time. However, following the election of the coalition government, the plan was steam-rollered and the BBC was told it would have to pay.
So who’s in the right? It is undeniable that, in a year that saw jobs and benefits cut and the cost of basic living rise, an additional tax would have been generally unpopular. However, should the BBC bear the brunt? The World Service is a globally recognised news channel, listened to as respected source of international journalism. Although these services may not serve the majority, the central purpose of the BBC is to safeguard the services that are essential but not commercially viable for other providers.
There is no doubt that connecting rural areas would help small business and bumper entrepreneurism outside cities. However, how comfortable the public are with a tax for one service being used by the government for another purpose remains to be seen. Many are concerned such a move could set a dangerous precedent when UK personal taxation is already the fourth highest in Europe, believing that the tax that is currently garnered ought to be used for its specifically intended purpose.
The argument boils down to asking ourselves what role we feel the BBC ought to play in our society. Is it a news provider, here to provide a balanced take on current affairs and ensure that programmes that aren’t necessarily commercially viable get their airing? Or is it a public service, whose primary role is to use the tax which funds it for the broadest distribution of benefit amongst the public it serves? I suspect the evolution of the BBC is leaning towards the latter as accountability for how our taxes are spent becomes increasingly in demand. We are now a nation wise to expenses, and demanding of transparency in the public sector. However, how these changes develop and what result it will have on the longstanding, institutional BBC is still yet to be seen.