Howard Davies: What will become of the BBC Trust?

The MT Diary: Howard Davies takes a beastly flight to the big Apple, and attends the launch of a book about the BBC in crisis.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 09 Jul 2014

The sea hasn't been seen near the promenade at Southport since Adam was a boy, so I was surprised that, according to a bossy council sign, you couldn't park near the beach at high tide.

I trotted the dog along to the end of the pier, where there were a couple of puddles in the sand, but nothing you could drown a Yorkie in. So we drifted into the pier caff, which smelt of stale chip fat, and included several machines, all broken, in which you could buy old pennies.

At the counter, the main delight on offer was out-of-date crisps, attractively priced at 20 (new)p. Waste not, want not, as my grandma used to say.

Being as how I were in Lanky for't weekend, I picked up the Sunday-morning American flight to New York from Ringway, as I still think of Manchester Airport. The cabin was full of Wild Beasts, who were en route to a gig in Brooklyn. Readers who are down with the kids will know they are an indie rock band from the Lake District.

They were no trouble at all, and tucked into their lunch at 11am. I asked if I could have my lunch at lunchtime, but was told that was out of the question. It would disturb the crew's six-hour siesta.

The Beasts didn't even react badly when given UK landing cards to fill in on their arrival at JFK, as there were no American customs forms on the plane. So, with the exception of a few wise virgins like me, who had picked up a US form at the check-in desk, the whole plane was left scrambling to find a pen in the immigration hall.

In these post-literate days, few young people carry any form of writing machine, I find. So Willie Walsh will find me back on BA next time, whatever he does to me.

--

It was brass monkey weather in New York. Even in March, Central Park was a frozen wasteland, so I aborted my walk and took refuge in a non-Starbucks coffee bar. Overeager for a warming drink, I picked up someone else's soy chai vanilla latte and was rebuked by a barista. 'Your cappuccino is still being crafted,' she told me, with a withering look.

It occurred to me that both preceding sentences would have been incomprehensible to me 15 years ago. Now they, like, almost seem like English. These days, the language is better spoken in Paris. The French haven't yet worked out how to insert 'like' into every sentence in that imaginative way the Americans have. We can only hope that technique remains beyond them.

--

Back in London, I performed at the launch of a new instant book called Is the BBC in Crisis? I think we were all supposed to answer yes, in the light of the Savile affair and the crazy pay-offs.

But the real crisis may be still to come, as the political establishment gears up for the next Charter review, due early in the new Parliament. I was involved in the last review, in 2005, as a member of the committee set up under the ubiquitous Lord (Terry) Burns, to advise the Blair government on what should be done.

We wrestled with two big issues: governance and the future of the licence fee. On the first, we were very clear on what should be done. The old BBC governors had tried, and failed, to be both cheerleaders and regulators. So we recommended a new regulator, dubbed the Public Service Broadcasting Commission, and a proper corporate board, with an independent chairman sitting above the director-general.

The government ignored us, and instead set up the BBC Trust - both the embodiment of the corporation (which is how it describes itself) and its regulator. Surprise, surprise, it hasn't worked, and we witnessed the unedifying spectacle of the (former) DG and the Trust chairman trading insults and disputing responsibility for extravagant redundancy deals in front of the Public Accounts Committee, which could scarcely believe its luck. For once, the witnesses supplied the scandalous headlines, without even the need for a Margaret Hodge sound bite.

So now what? It is hard to think of a better option than going back to the Burns prescription, which I argue in the book. At the debate after the launch, no one advanced a plausible alternative, except to let the Trust limp along in its much-diminished form.

The licence fee is different. Last time, we inelegantly concluded that, one day, the fee would become indefensible when it became possible to know who is or is not watching the Beeb's output, but for the time being it should remain.

From an economic and a tax policy perspective, it is a nonsense. It is doubly regressive. As a fixed 'poll tax', it hits the poor harder than the rich. And there is evidence that lower-income groups, though they may watch more TV, watch cheaper programmes - reruns of Australian soaps versus expensive docudramas.

But in spite of these curious redistributional consequences, most people still support the licence fee. They like that the BBC has its own independent source of income, rather than being subject to the vagaries of the public spending round and the whims of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, even though there are parts of the public sector paid for out of tax revenue, such as the court system, whose independence is not questioned. This may be a case where sentiment dominates analysis.

There'll be a lot more sentiment, and maybe some analysis, before a new settlement is reached. The BBC is mobilising its fan club already, aware that its chief antagonists last time, the Murdoch clan, remain firmly in the sin bin. So my bet is that when the dust settles, the licence fee will still be there, but with a new governance structure surrounding it.

- Howard Davies is the chairman of the Airports Commission. Follow him on Twitter at: @howardjdavies

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