This Miller's tale is not to Auntie's liking

This Miller's tale is not to Auntie's liking

Around this time of year, I start writing a review of the main media events of the year. I'd originally thought one of the key themes was how the established players and brands staged a come back during 2002.

We've seen the revamp of Marks & Spencer as the place to shop for undies, a triumph for the Queen's Jubilee celebrations. Perhaps, too, the first stirrings of hope for ITV. And then there is the BBC, assured last May by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell that the licence fee was safe to 2016. Yet the past few weeks have seen key aspects of this cosy picture torn apart.

There has been the collapse of Paul Burrell's trial, unleashing criticism directly at the Queen. And Jowell's cheery acceptance of a privileged BBC - without a debate -  may also be a little rash.

The compulsory nature of the licence is suddenly under forthright attack by The Sunday Times' columnist Jonathan Miller, whose previous mischievous campaigns against Surrey police and the handling of the foot and mouth crisis pale into insignificance.

The former media journalist (who joined Sky as its launch PR man) allowed his licence to lapse in July, only partly because he finds little to watch on the populist BBC. What really fired him up was that Jowell statement, his sense of a cosy stitch-up. One of the key themes in John Birt's autobiography, after all, is the description of unceasing contacts between Government and BBC.

Also interesting is the case of techie John Underwood, who owns a personal computer, but no television. The BBC is demanding a licence fee because he can download its multimedia content.

There is a (remote) outside chance that Miller's campaign could lead to a people's revolt, should a mass refusal to pay up ensue. The Daily Telegraph, buttressed by a poll, has aired the case for making payment voluntary. It is the perfect issue for a campaign websit (

Miller intends to test the powers of the 1949 Wireless & Telegraphy Act. Does it give the BBC's collecting agency the right to pursue refuseniks through the courts?

His further more sophisticated argument centres on whether the licence fee contravenes the European Human Rights Act of 1998, which, in article 10, guarantees citizens the right to "receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority".

I very much hope this case does get to court. We are in an era when conditional access technology is freely available,
giving people the right to pay and choose. The rationale for a universal licence fee deserves to be thrashed out. The arguments have a broader scope than the sectoral business cases being made by commercial lobbyists.

What was the BBC to do? For several weeks it tried to ignore Miller. But it has been forced onto a battleground not of its making. Last week, the BBC took advice from leading QC, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. And Greg Dyke was galvanized into a high-profile defence of the universal licence fee, the key role of the BBC in national life. That's good.

The BBC has many arguments it can make. And it has the airwaves on which to make them.There will be plenty of diary tales about Miller doing Rupert Murdoch's bidding. That's not the case. He's an engaging troublemaker, affluent enough to do as he likes.

One of Miller's best points is that, without a combination of Government preference and court sanctions, the BBC would have to behave with less arrogance, woo people as esteemed customers.

I hope Jowell has realized that attempting to rule out
a debate is the best way to provoke one.

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