Media Lifeline: BBC licence fee

The thorny issue remains high on the agenda of both broadcasters and politicians.

May 2006: As the BBC Charter renewal process hots up (the Charter is due to run out at the end of 2006), the Government produces a white paper that seeks to defer any radical examination of the licence fee system until after the analogue TV switch-off in 2012. The paper argues that any changes agreed after that date might possibly be implemented in 2016.

January 2007: Calls to "top slice" the licence fee to help make up the funding deficit being experienced by other public-service broadcasters are resisted by Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general. A new Charter (not noticeably different from the old one) is granted.

March 2008: But with Ofcom revisiting this issue (as it is charged with doing every five years) and the Government preparing a report on the impact of digital media technologies, the issue goes live once more. Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, calls for the "top slicing" to be revisited. This enrages the BBC, with Sir Michael Lyons, the BBC Trust chairman, warning that it could undermine the BBC's ability to deliver public-service programmes.

January 2009: Following hard upon the heels of the publication of the first-stage conclusions of Ofcom's public-service broadcasting review, Lord Carter's Digital Britain report is released. Neither document makes convincing proposals on the future funding of the BBC.

May 2009: But with the Government on the ropes as the MPs' expenses scandal builds, the Opposition leader, David Cameron, sees his opportunity. He calls for top-earning public-service broadcasting executives to be "named and shamed" - then calls for the licence fee to be frozen rather than rising automatically as under the existing arrangements.

Fast forward ...

September 2009: And when the Conservatives win a snap General Election (the inevitable outcome of a no-confidence vote on the leadership of Gordon Brown), the new Prime Minister, Cameron, pledges to put a BBC licence fee review near the top of his agenda. There's cynicism, though, when he reveals that the question will be examined in a thorough-going public inquiry, which is likely to last a minimum of two years.

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