Recipes Row Shows the BBC Must Stand by Itself

BBC Headquarters
BBC headquarters and studios in London, July 16, 2015. Is the corporation's funding model sustainable? Peter Nicholls/Reuters

On the face of it, the move makes no sense. The BBC's announcement that it will scrap an archive of 11,000 food recipes from its website as part of a plan to streamline content will surely cost more than it saves. After all, the stuff is already there. Maintaining it on a webpage probably costs the equivalent of less than a minute of iPlayer coverage. This therefore makes this discussion about principles: What should the BBC's role be and how is this linked to its funding?

Given the relative triviality of the issue, one has to question the motives here. The Beeb has form in highlighting cuts or changes to content in order to provoke a backlash—to scare ministers from further attempted control by demonstrating how popular its content is. But underlying the BBC's apparent decision to stop offering online travel advice, axe magazine-style content and recipes, and dramatically increase its promotion of local newspapers' stories, is a recognition of its privileged funding model.

This is a microcosm of what one might call the "BBC dilemma." The license fee—in effect a tax—creates two competing pressures.

On the one hand, to justify the license fee's continuation, the BBC feels compelled to create content for every individual taste. Hence we have a raft of reality TV shows and quizzes, sports coverage, and a website featuring online recipes, funny stories and more. This goes way beyond what one might consider pure form public service broadcasting. At best, one could say that all this content is necessary to attract people in to read or watch important stuff.

On the other hand, that the BBC is given such a privileged position with its guaranteed funding means it is natural to ask questions such as, "Should the BBC be doing this?" and "Shouldn't the BBC solely focus on areas which the market cannot focus on?" This is particularly true given that commercial and technological realities are breaking down the need for a public service broadcaster. Other providers produce news, documentaries, and sport. For the purposes of this discussion, there's a website where one can access all the recipes one could imagine. It's called "Google." This makes laughable the wailing of some campaigners today that somehow the BBC failing to create new recipes going forward will mean people don't know how to cook meals.

Now, of course, the BBC always does everything it can to protect its privileged position and guaranteed funding. It is willing to give up doing some things such as recipes through fear of having to stand on its own two feet. But at what long-term cost? The license fee is increasingly politicizing the organization—and worse, it makes the BBC focus on a domestic audience when broadcasting is going global. It's simply impossible for the BBC to compete with Netflix, Time Warner, Google or Amazon with a funding model of domestic subsidy and the relative chicken-feed of BBC Worldwide revenues.

If the BBC wants to survive and thrive, enjoying full editorial independence and being able to produce whatever content it wishes, tailored to consumer demands, then it must raise its own funds. This is the only way to prevent it becoming a politicized global irrelevance.

Ryan Bourne is head of public policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.