The future and funding of the BBC has been the subject dominating this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival.

Armando Iannucci received a standing ovation after delivering a well-received MacTaggart lecture that called on creatives and the production community to rally to the support of the corporation in the face of government cutbacks.

Meanwhile, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale attempted to play down rifts with the corporation, using an interview here to insist the Tories were not driven by an ideological drive to dismantle the BBC.

A Leader’s Debate, styled on the televised political leaders debates ahead of the general election, also saw figures such as Sky’s Stuart Murphy and C4’s Jay Hunt speak up in support of the need for a strong BBC to help underpin the UK television industry.

The focus on the BBC follows weeks of political deal-making and debates about the corporation.

The government unveiled its green paper on the future of the BBC last month. At the time Whittingdale said the BBC’s operations had grown exponentially over the last decade and it was time to ask if its “range of services best serves licence fee payers”.

Last month the government also said the BBC had to cover the cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s, which could cost the corporation up to £700m.

Combined, the green paper and over-75s deal have created a sense that the BBC’s funding levels are under concerted attack from the Conservatives.

The fear factor was ramped up days before the festival by BBC director general Tony Hall, who warned that further cuts to the corporation’s funding and remit could result in more than 30,000 job losses across the TV industry.

The Edinburgh Festival has given the TV industry a strong platform from which to broadcast its opposition to cutbacks at the BBC.
For some, there is a sense that the BBC and its supporters may be tilting at windmills, in the phrase of media commentator Steve Hewlett.

In a session titled ‘The BBC: Under Siege’ he asked if the people rushing to defend the corporation weren’t actually trying to target imaginary enemies.

After all, Whittingdale all but said yesterday that the BBC will continue to be funded by the licence fee when BBC Charter Renewal process concludes next year. He ruled out other funding mechanisms such as subscription, advertising and direct government subsidy. And the BBC has already negotiated that the licence fee will rise in line with CPI inflation, in return for striking the over-75s funding deal.

The incessant debates on BBC funding at the Edinburgh TV Festival can seem parochial.

But the £3.72bn the corporation receives from the licence fee is a vital source of funding for the UK’s creative sector, underpinning its success around the world. The BBC is also a crucial part of the civic identity of the UK.

For these reasons, many are frustrated that the government has now cut BBC funding twice in the past five years in deals struck behind closed doors with no public consultation.

And they are frustrations with the Conservatives that have all boiled to a head at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival.

Tim Dams

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