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BBC Trust candidate defends licence fee, says evaders are CRIMINALS

People genuinely want to pay for us, and want to be forced to

The Government's choice for BBC chairman defended the licence fee, criminal penalties for non-payers, and digital "education" initiatives before MPs today.

BBC executives will have been delighted by what former Pearson director Rona Fairhead told the DCMS Select Committee (if you have Silverlight installed, you can have a look here). The compulsory licence fee was the best option, she told them, giving two reasons.

The first was the "TV tax" is "helping our digital skills, our digital development as a country." The second was that the BBC produces quality TV that the market can't... "Really good science programmes or really good natural history programmes."

While many might agree with the second - an unregulated TV market involves a race to the bottom - do households really sign over £145.50 a year wishing that "Auntie" can be a Net Nanny? Or teach them coding skills?

Apparently so. Responding to a later question from Angie Bray (Con), Fairhead said the BBC's role was "at the beating heart of Britain ... to create innovative programming or build new innovative and challenging technologies." [our emphasis]

So maybe we'll get that Flying Car after all.

Fairhead also wanted the BBC spend all the money that was raised through the present fee, which is compulsory on the viewing of live transmissions in the UK, regardless of the device. The Carter Review of 2009 recommended "top-slicing" the tax, so ITV and Channel 4 could make programs that fit the Public Service Broadcasting requirements. Fairhead thought the BBC should have the lot.

"What the current situation gives is a total clarity. Clarity about what you're getting for your money - you can engage in that as a Licence Fee payer, and it gives clarify of accountability."

"I really believe in the BBC."

Fairhead also defended criminal penalties for non-payers. Over 180,000 of the poorest Britons are prosecuted for non-payment each year, and over 70 sent to jail.

"In an ideal world everybody would pay, and nobody would be subsidising people who don't pay. But it's not ideal. There are five per cent of people who don't pay - so the funding available to make those quality programmes is less by £200m (sic). The criminalisation does ensure the payments are made."

Whatever alternatives might replace the criminal penalties would be equally painful, such as sending in the bailiffs, she added.

Asked whether she was concerned by the BBC's own polling that suggested one in five "wouldn't miss the BBC" and one in four don't think it's value for money, Fairhead responded by telling MPs they should look at the full part of the glass.

"Let me say when I look at the current system of the Licence Fee, I think there are some very significant benefits… It ensures independence, universal service for a universal fee and ensures creative freedom. I would have to say is that 50 to 60 per cent of people do think it's value for money, and because of the benefits of the Licence Fee I think it's the most appropriate way to fund it."

Fairhead also said the BBC should be more ethnically diverse - but was challenged by two Labour MPs on whether that's all diversity meant.

"Quite a lot of people at the top of the social elite think that 'diversity' means getting black Etonians as well as white Etonians," noted Paul Farrelly (Lab). "They don't talk about social diversity. What's your view in terms of widening class?"

"Because of the BBC's creative and digital output it has a role to play," she said. Fairhead generally agreed with all the questions, even if it meant giving contradictory answers. Labour's Ben Bradshaw noticed this.

"I wouldn't count myself as an Establishment figure and I am independent of mind and of view. I represent the audience," she had insisted earlier.

Hmm, said Bradshaw, after one of her numerous eulogies to the Licence Fee.

"I read somewhere reports that you were open minded on the matter [of the Licence Fee] but it seems those reports weren't accurate," he noted.

Tory Philip Davies wondered if she thought everything was so rosy, why was she doing the job?

"Everyone who comes here starts off giving a speech about how brilliant and how marvellous the BBC is. If it is, what is it that you want to achieve? If it's the best organisation since sliced bread, then why not leave it alone without you interfering with it?"

Fairhead didn't sound like she wouldn't be too receptive to whistleblowers. The Trust would listen to "any feedback that has gone through the proper processes" she said, after warning that companies fail because they get their processes muddled. Inspiring stuff, it wasn't.

It was as if the former Pearson exec had been told not to ruffle feathers ahead of the 2015 Election. (The BBC dominates news consumption in the UK, and wise governments don't upset the mighty media corporation if they can help it).

Fairhead's previous employer Pearson has clashed with the BBC over straying from its historical mission of high quality programmes to dabble in the education field. Now she seems to think it's a terrific idea.

Last October the BBC promised to spend an unspecified amount on the non-core "educational" gravy train of teaching the audience computer programming. As we pointed out at the time, Britain leads the developed world in digital literacy skills. What it lacks is basic numeracy and literacy. ®

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