Ever since I can remember, the BBC, one of Britain’s undisputed cultural crown jewels, has supposedly been on the brink of disaster.
Yet just because the BBC has always survived in the past, shrugging off criticism from the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, doesn’t mean it has a God-given right to endure for ever.
This week, as Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan launches a ‘consultation’ to discuss the licence fee, its future genuinely seems more uncertain than ever before.
Like most people, I have conflicted views about the BBC. As with the NHS, it is apparently compulsory to say that you love it, and in many ways I do.
As a child of the 1970s, I grew up with Play School, Blue Peter, Grange Hill and Doctor Who.
Nicky Morgan gives a speech in Westminster on Wednesday where she announced a ‘consultation’ to discuss the TV licence fee
David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries are among the best loved programmes on the BBC
I always try to catch a bit of Match Of The Day, listen to The Proms in the car, never miss an episode of Line Of Duty and like nothing better than curling up with my family to watch the latest David Attenborough series.
In some ways, of course, I’m biased. I’ve made dozens of TV and radio programmes for the BBC, working with some brilliant, tireless and unfailingly generous people.
But when you work for the BBC, you can’t help noticing the things that are wrong.
Is it biased? No, but there is a pervasive atmosphere of metropolitan liberalism, sometimes self-flagellating but often self-satisfied.
The bureaucracy is just as bad as everybody says it is. Indeed, the brilliant BBC satire W1A only scratches the surface.
For example, it is utterly demented that if I’m working on a programme for the Corporation, I have to get an ‘approved’ taxi from a town 45 minutes from my home, rather than one down the road (which is undoubtedly cheaper).
The obsession with diversity, meanwhile, is even worse than people imagine. I’ve lost count of the number of times researchers have rung me up to ask if I could suggest a historical expert — ‘preferably a black woman’.
And the BBC’s top-down managerial culture defies belief. Nothing captures it better than that leaked photo in the Mail last week, showing four very well-paid executives announcing job cuts to hundreds of horrified journalists.
The executives perched on stools holding bottles of water. One was chomping an apple; another, clearly far too cool for school, was casually attired in a black T-shirt and jeans.
Match Of The Day presenter Gary Lineker, the BBC’s highest paid star, has mooted decriminalisation of the licence fee
But no organisation is perfect and none of these things is necessarily terminal. Even the widely reported hostility of the current Government might not be fatal, since all governments fall out with the BBC.
What might well be terminal, though, is the fact that the BBC is rapidly slipping out of the national conversation.
My family watch far less BBC television than we used to. Many weeks we barely watch any of its programmes at all.
And this is part of a wider pattern, not least among the young. A few months ago, the regulator Ofcom reported that less than half of 16 to 24-year- olds watched BBC television in a given week.
Even a decade or two ago, such a finding would have been unimaginable.
The BBC’s typical reaction to all this is to make ever more lurid, desperate and pitiful efforts to attract younger viewers, not unlike an ageing lothario suffering a midlife crisis.
It is surely only a matter of time, for instance, before we get the first transgender presenter of Songs Of Praise.
But the real problem, as Nicky Morgan wrote in the Mail yesterday, is that the wider broadcasting landscape has changed beyond recognition, and there is nothing the BBC can do about it.
When Lord Reith set up the BBC in the 1920s, it was effectively a national monopoly.
Even when I was little, there were still only three channels. By and large Britain was divided into BBC and ITV households — though we united for occasions such as the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials, England’s various World Cup disasters and sitcoms such as Only Fools And Horses, all of which attracted more than 20 million viewers. But those days are gone, never to return.
Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC, which is facing stiff competition from streaming services like Netflix and Apple
Thanks to streaming, the cultural landscape has fragmented beyond repair.
Today, almost half of British homes subscribe to services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV+, with Disney poised to join them.
So it is no wonder younger audiences no longer worship at the shrine of Lord Reith.
All of this naturally brings me to the licence fee.
In effect, it is simply the successor to the original radio licence fee, which was just 10 shillings (50p) when it was introduced in 1923.
In other words, it is a relic of a bygone era, designed for a united, homogenous society in which every single radio and television programme was produced by one broadcaster.
That made sense in the age of Churchill and Attlee, when people were used to the idea of nationalised monopolies. But if the licence fee did not already exist, nobody would dream of introducing it now.
So should we decriminalise non-payment, as Gary Lineker and others argue? No. I think decriminalisation would be a complete waste of time.
Either you have to pay the licence fee or you don’t. It’s a tax and taxes shouldn’t be voluntary.
But getting rid of it doesn’t strike me as very sensible, either. Yes, we all love to moan about the BBC, but moving to a purely subscription service — the Netflix model — would eviscerate it.
A Netflix-style BBC would spend all its time chasing ratings — and it does too much of that already. The end of the licence fee would probably mean the end of BBC4, Radio 3, The Proms, and perhaps even BBC2 and Radio 4.
Nicky Morgan foresees the BBC going the same way of the now defunct movie store Blockbuster (Chichester branch closing down in 2013) if it does not adapt
In other words, it would spell the end of much of what is really valuable about the BBC: the unique blend of high and low, mass appeal and minority interest.
And in an age when our national culture seems more fragmented than ever, and when fake news poses such a threat to our political discourse, it would be madness to get rid of one of our few genuinely national institutions.
But if Nicky Morgan is right that, without change, the BBC is destined to follow the Blockbuster video rental chain down the drain, what’s the answer?
Well, the obvious solution is to have the best of both worlds. We’re used to paying the licence fee, even if we do grumble about it.
So keep it, but cut it. You pay your licence fee and you get a basic BBC service: the news, major national events, mainstream popular entertainment, a few radio channels.
On top of that, the BBC should offer a premium service. If you pay the equivalent of a Netflix subscription (currently from £5.99 a month), you get the extras.
More radio channels, more documentaries, early access to big new dramas, box-set streaming, old favourites. The Proms on tap, all unlimited and on-demand.
In other words, you’d have a choice. Pay less and get less; pay more and get more.
I don’t pretend that everybody would like it. At new Broadcasting House, the slightest mention of a subscription provokes shrieks of protest.
But an institution founded in the 1920s can’t expect to be shielded forever from the pace of cultural change. And as for those critics who would just let it dwindle into obscurity, I don’t believe they have Britain’s best interests at heart.
The BBC has been there all our lives, an indelible part of our national identity.
And if we let it die, whether through cold indifference or reluctance to change, we would all be far, far worse off.