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Bishop warns of threat to the BBC in licence-fee review

18 January 2022

ALAMY

The entrance to the BBC’s headquarters, Broadcasting House, London, on Monday

The entrance to the BBC’s headquarters, Broadcasting House, London, on Monday

THE reputation of the BBC as a world-class public broadcaster and creative leader should not be jeopardised in the review of the licence fee, the Bishop of Ripon, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, said on Monday.

The Bishop, who chairs the Sandford St Martin Trust, was responding, on Monday, to reports that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, would announce the freezing and possible abolition of the licence fee, on cost of living grounds. Later that day, Ms Dorries told the House of Commons that the licence fee would be frozen for the next two years and that the Government would “undertake a review of the overall licence fee model”.

She said: “As the tech has changed, so have audience habits, particularly among younger viewers, so it is time to begin asking those really serious questions about the long-term funding model of the BBC and whether a mandatory licence fee with criminal penalties for individual households is still appropriate.”

She went on to call for a “debate” about what a BBC in 2027, when the current charter period ends, would look like. “It is not a policy; we are announcing a debate and a discussion.”

On the same day as Ms Dorries’s announcement, the Sandford St Martin Trust, which promotes excellence in religious broadcasting through its annual awards, expressed concern.

“The BBC plays a critical role in the promotion and enhancement of the public and personal understanding of religion,” Dr Hartley said. “This has never been clearer than during the last two years, when so many UK citizens depended on the BBC for content that helped support their own religious practice and connected them to their communities.

“The value the BBC has offered in this area is evidenced through the list of excellent programmes that have been shortlisted or have won Sandford St Martin broadcasting awards in recent years.

“As a funding mechanism, the licence fee has served as contract between the broadcaster and the UK public — the only stakeholder its output exists to serve. We would be very sorry to see this or the BBC’s reputation as a world-class public service broadcaster and creative leader jeopardised, and would welcome an opportunity to discuss how public service broadcasting and the BBC can be funded to truly represent all communities and viewers in the UK.”

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, urged the Government to treasure and support the BBC when he spoke in the House of Lords last month (News, 10 December), in a debate led by Lord Bragg, a former Sandford St Martin Trust award winner, on the proposal: “That this House takes note of the BBC’s value to the United Kingdom and a wider global audience and the case for Her Majesty’s Government giving it greater support.”

Bishop Bayes described the public square as increasingly one “where to be opinionated is to be rewarded, and where volume and shrillness of tone have become praiseworthy in themselves. . . Calm scrutiny will cause people with power, whoever and wherever they may be, whatever they may say, however loudly they may speak, one and all, to be uncomfortable.”

The Bishop made reference to the English media’s response to the terrorist incident in Liverpool on 15 November, in which one man died and another was seriously injured (News, 19 November 2021). Christians were found to have befriended and been deceived by the terrorist.

“For some, the journey of the young man concerned provided a fine opportunity for the naïvety of people of faith to be exposed, or for the systems by which people seek refuge to be deplored,” the Bishop said.

“The BBC, on the other hand, nationally and regionally, genuinely provided the impartial platform of scrutiny which I have described, and it continues to hold the significant trust of people across my community, where few other voices do.

“In this case, that trust rested on a readiness, particularly on the part of local BBC journalists, to explore on its own terms the self-understanding of communities of faith as places of God’s welcome. In other words, it rested on a platform of religious literacy.”

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