Having written at length last week about its lack of impartiality, I hesitate to return to the subject of the BBC today. But it may be worth commenting on what could turn out to be a massive miscalculation on the part of the corporation, since many people depend on Britain’s renowned public broadcaster for reliable information as a trustworthy global news provider and they are interested in how it is faring.
At a time when the BBC is facing growing public hostility at home for its liberal bias, lack of impartiality and inadequate respect for diverse opinions, it beggars belief that it should have entered into a new separate battle over the payment of licence fees by the over-75s. In fact, in the current climate when it is under threat from a still relatively new Conservative government to make a change to its special status as a public broadcaster with state funding, some are now saying it is hard to imagine a more provocative and, possibly, even self-destructive act by the BBC.
As I mentioned briefly in last week’s article, a row has been brewing for a while about the existing system of free TV licences for those over 75 years old. Responsibility for these had earlier been passed by a previous government to the BBC which has now finally scrapped them with effect from August 1.
This means some three million households - with possibly as many as half a million exemptions in respect of those receiving a type of welfare payment called pension credit - will have to pay for the first time an annual licensing fee equivalent to some $200 which represents about one week’s payment of the state pension; and for those on low incomes it may not be easy to find this extra money.
While many in Britain may not be much concerned about issues like impartiality and lack of diversity of opinion, if a body like the BBC - which is the largest media organisation in the UK with an annual licensing income of nearly $5 billion - is seen to be exploiting pensioners to pay for budget gaps instead of seeking savings elsewhere, public anger knows no bounds. What is more, this was made worse when it became known the BBC’s principal football pundit is paid - to widespread incredulity - some $2 million a year. Many regard such a sum for commenting on football as unacceptable in the case of a body funded by the taxpayer even though the person concerned is a former England international and extremely well versed in the game. Meanwhile, the BBC’s Director General himself rakes in an annual salary of more than half a million dollars.
To some people, the BBC has become like the hydra-headed monster of Greek mythology – as soon as one part of it has been held accountable for something and has been sorted out, another issue crops up in a sprawling, over-staffed and excessively bureaucratic organisation that seems both to be out of control and out of touch with public opinion. How else could such a counterproductive policy for relatively little financial gain be countenanced when the BBC is losing viewers all the time to streaming services and is now seen to be turning against the elderly who constitute a major part of its core watchers and listeners.
Moreover, it seems no account has been taken of the importance of television for this group. Much more than younger people, they have become isolated at home during the virus crisis and the TV set transmitting their favourite programmes has become a friend and companion and a lifeline to the outside world for an estimated 2.5 million over-75s living alone.
As resentment is likely to grow in the coming weeks, some commentators now wonder whether the BBC will swallow its pride, do a U-turn and abandon this misguided policy. If not, it could turn out to be a spectacular own goal for an organisation whose public funding may no longer be considered appropriate in a digital media world where the broadcasting landscape has changed with the rise of Netflix and others that has triggered a decline in traditional TV viewing. That said, the BBC strongly defends its position as an independent broadcaster responsible for managing its own finances and takes exception to interference by the government.
Ultimately, however, the government has the power to end the BBC’s special status as a public broadcaster and to scrap the licence fee altogether. At present, this is payable by all British households, companies and organisations using any sort of equipment to receive or record live TV broadcasts. There are, of course, a range of other issues to consider before any changes might be made, but today’s Tory government has taken a strong stance in relation to the BBC which ultimately could even become a subscription-based competitor to Netflix - and such a development is not entirely fanciful though it is surely well down the road if it happens at all.
Be that as it may, many believe the BBC’s original ethos has been lost and the signs are the public wants it to be more accountable as an organisation. It has become too market-oriented and, as a publicly funded broadcaster, it should not be competing with private sector companies for ratings.
Perhaps the bosses at the BBC should be wary of criticism by no less a figure than Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself about the ending of free licences for the over-75s. His spokesperson was quoted as saying recently: ‘This is the wrong decision. We recognise the value of free TV licences for over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC’.
Whether Mr Johnson goes ahead with a shake-up of the BBC remains to be seen. But, at the very least, what he surely ought to do without delay is to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee so that the BBC would have to take civil action to chase delinquent payers. One Tory MP is on record as saying that in the current atmosphere there would be a huge public backlash if over-75s were hauled before the courts or even sent to prison for failing to pay up.
Why this ‘new normal’ may be replaced by the ‘old normal’
In the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, many hoped it was a type of seasonal flu prevalent in northern Europe during winter that would die away during the warmer summer months. But it is now clear, of course, that this has not happened and, indeed, the virus may have entered a new deadly phase globally. So people have become resigned to the fact that it is not going to disappear of its own accord and the only hope is development of an effective vaccine.
In such circumstances, it is interesting to read what is being said in the international press about the ‘new normal’, a term that has become almost a cliché. Nearly all agree the seriousness of the economic crises in different countries is unprecedented – in the case of Britain it is said the nation is facing the worst economic situation since 1825 when the Bank of England was on the brink of collapse.
No sensible person underestimates the threat of the virus and most people have a sort of primal fear of such disease on a huge scale. So they are generally willing to accept the need for measures like social distancing. But this is difficult in crowded office spaces. As a result, one of the most significant manifestations of such distancing is the current widespread practice of office staff working from home where technology allows tasks to be carried out remotely. Reportedly, this has now become practically the norm in London and other large European cities.
But, of course, it means there is already a surfeit of unwanted office space, particularly in those new high-rise buildings that have been springing up in London during the last few years – and that means a reduced need for security guards and cleaners and for shops and services in the centre of the city, not to mention less demand for public transport.
An important benefit for those working from home is the avoidance of a long and expensive commute into city centres. It could also signal a revival of shops in local towns since goods and services move to where the people are, even though internet shopping is obviously here to stay. Some say remote working would have happened anyway in the modern digital economy and that the office tower block will not survive because this new practice is both efficient and cost-effective for businesses which can avoid having to maintain expensive offices in city centres.
Already, large companies and banks are saying they have no plans to fill their city offices again until next year at the earliest - or even never - as more and more people will continue to work from home. However, I for one am sceptical about this. On the thesis that the familiar can be the enemy of the new, it is hard to believe cities will remain empty after the pandemic has passed. What’s the betting that once a vaccine is available – which, according to the latest reports, could be by early next year - there will be a general return to the ‘old normal’ despite all the bluster. Perhaps, after all, that ‘new normal’ which everyone refers to will disappear - just like the virus that spawned it.
Britain in a better light
It is always pleasant to be able to write in a positive vein so I am glad to draw attention to last week’s repatriation charter flight to London operated by British Airways. In all the disruption of recent months involving border closures, travel restrictions and flight cancellations it was encouraging to learn about this special flight.
Earlier, of course, after coronavirus lockdowns started from about March onwards, the UK government had organised special charter flights in various countries in the Caribbean to get thousands of British nationals home in difficult conditions.
Last week’s flight was organised by the Government of Cayman, where the flight started, the Philippines Government and the British High Commission here in Nassau. 75 British nationals and those of ten different countries travelled on the flight which later went on to Manila to take Filipino seafarers home.
When I asked British High Commissioner Sarah Dickson about the flight, she described the whole operation as logistically challenging. Reading between the lines, it became clear it was her initiative and that she and her staff were responsible for making it happen. I imagine the logistics were more likely to have been something of a nightmare than simply challenging. But she was full of praise for the cooperation and assistance she received from all concerned, including the Airport Authority, Nassau Flight Services, Immigration and Customs and the BA staff here in Nassau.
This strikes me as a good example of adapting to the unusual and the unexpected and getting things done in difficult circumstances.
Quite separately, it was equally encouraging to learn of a meeting on July 27 hosted by the Minister of Financial Services, Elsworth Johnson, to discuss an increase of trade between the UK and The Bahamas. It is reported that the CARIFORUM-UK Economic Partnership Agreement signed in London in 2019 will be ratified soon by The Bahamas. This commits the UK to provide immediate duty-free and quota-free access to the UK market for Bahamian exporters, as negotiated in the original CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement. It is significant because Bahamian exports to the UK in 2018 amounted to $8.7 million, making it The Bahamas’s fourth largest export market.
As for trade in the other direction, it has always seemed to me that UK exporters have tended to underestimate the importance of the Bahamian market despite the country being the wealthiest in the region. So it was good news, indeed, that this meeting took place and that both governments will now be considering the provision of new support to the private sector with the aim of strengthening economic ties for mutual benefit.