Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Lady T and the licence fee

By Giles Edwards
Producer, BBC Radio 4's Decision Time

Although all the major political parties proclaim their support for the BBC, the march of technology and the financial crisis have prompted a renewed debate about the long-term viability of the licence fee which funds it.

John Birt and Margaret Thatcher composite picture
Mr Birt was director general when Baroness Thatcher was PM

But what would happen if Britain elected a strong-minded prime minister set on abolishing the licence fee?

That is just what happened in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher seriously examined taking on the corporation and its funding mechanism.

Now two of the key players in defeating one of the most powerful prime ministers in modern times at the height of her power have revealed how they did it.

'Virulently' anti-BBC

Lord Birt, who as John Birt was deputy director general and later director general of the BBC, and David Mellor, broadcasting minister on several occasions, were both opposed to abolishing the licence fee.

In BBC Radio 4's Decision Time they tell how they used to get together - at Green's gourmet seafood restaurant in London - to plot and discuss how to defeat the BBC's critics.

It was a time, says Mr Mellor, when Mrs Thatcher was "virulently" against the BBC. He urged Mr Birt to be tough in any negotiation.

The important thing in any policy argument of this kind is to remember who makes the decision
John Birt

"I said to John, they're saying you should throw away Radio 1 and Radio 2," he recalls.

"Do not do that. The person in the Gateshead council house has got to have a reason to pay the licence fee. If it appears to be a subsidy from the Gateshead council house to the bloke in Hampstead Garden Suburb plugged into Radio 3, it isn't going to work."

"He gave me a very full and candid account of what was going on in government," says Mr Birt.

"And I gave him an extremely honest and candid account of what I thought the real problems were at the BBC, and we had, in a sense, a negotiation, and we were able to forge a sense of common purpose."

Are there lessons for people still trying to persuade a government of their case?

Mr Birt certainly thinks so: "The important thing in any policy argument of this kind is to remember who makes the decision.

"That's the thing always to focus on: Who makes the decision and who will be in the room when the decision is made, and what are the influences on them?"

He thinks the same argument could be won in a similar way. "Set out to marshal your arguments, and to win through having more people supporting you than opposing you, and David and I did that some years ago, and it could be done again."

One thing which might change is the venue for the plotting. Mr Mellor notes that the fashionable place to plot these days is no longer Green's, but a curry house.

Decision Time is on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 GMT on 20 January 2010.

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