BBC: So good you have to pay for it ... or else
Next year the TV licence fee will become technologically obsolete. The switchover to digital TV will be completed and the final technological barrier to moving the BBC onto a discretionary subscription funding model will be removed. (Whether or not that model should also include advertising is a related but separate debate.)
So why should the licence fee, which has existed for 89 years, be scrapped? Supporters of the ‘BBC tax’ will cite a number of reasons including the low cost, guarantee of independence, freedom to innovate, the enabling of the corporation to produce programming for minority tastes and the provision of public service broadcasting.
So let’s take each of these in turn.
That the BBC is cheaper than, say, a Sky subscription is undoubtedly true. After all, when you are able to charge all customers – including those of your competitors – for your product then the cost of your service can be spread more widely. Whether it provides value for money is a different matter, and is ultimately a subjective one. The acid test of this proposition must be to allow viewers to choose to receive the BBC and pay for it. Here the supporters of the licence fee are faced with a fundamental question that I have not yet heard an answer to; viz. if the BBC is that good, and offers such value for money, there should be nothing to fear from asking people to pay for it. Or, to put it another way:
If the BBC is so good, why do they need to force people to pay for it?
We know that the BBC prides itself on its independence and impartiality (though the two are not necessarily synonymous, of course). However as any student of investigative journalism knows – and the BBC’s output is typical – he who pays the piper is generally assumed to call the tune. If, say, some scientific research is funded by oil companies or the mobile telecoms industry it is never assumed to result in an impartial opinion. Therefore how can we assume the BBC, reliant as it is on the state for its (method of) funding, can ever be impartial, particularly on matters of regulation, public spending or anything dealing with independence from state interference? For example, how many times does some case of a wronged consumer get reported with the tone – and often conclusion – that more regulation is required? The point is that ‘independence’ should go further than simply being free from party political influences (and some would question whether the Beeb has even managed that).
Even putting aside any adverse influence the licence fee may have on the BBC’s independence, the cases of bias – particularly towards the liberal left – are numerous (and here’s the ubiquitous link to Biased BBC). While there are some token right-wing commentators, guests and even a handful of BBC in-house faces with a vaguely right-of-centre background, the corporation still suffers from a leftist mindset (and indeed, as I have mentioned, a ‘statist’ one to boot). Even if you are of the view that the BBC is too right wing (and we will have to agree to differ on that one) it is clear that as a guarantee of impartiality, the licence fee fails.
Yes, BBC supporters may question Sky’s impartiality (unfairly in my view), but no-one is forced to take out a Sky subscription just because they own a television set.
Jeremy Clarkson: Token righty?
Moving on; that guaranteed income, such as the licence fee, allows the BBC to innovate is not questioned. Of course, if the risk of failure is so drastically reduced, then the possibilities are limited only by the whims of the producer and OFCOM bureaucrats. Yet anyone who genuinely values artistic freedom should be repelled by the notion that a desk jockey should hold the whip hand over the creative mind, though sadly so many artist happily sign up to just such restrictions when they accept Arts Council grants or other state support.
Yet innovation happens in many industries all the time, but very few would have a case for being underwritten by the tax payer (and the licence fee is just another tax). The BBC is no such special case, particularly when the output produced, for example, by HBO in the U.S. proves that state support is not a prerequisite for programme quality.
We then get to the argument about minority programming. This is not just restricted to, say, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic programmes – state support for such things is a wider issue whereby, if people have neglected it to the point it needs state support, then by definition it doesn’t deserve it. Minority tastes can extend to, say, some esoteric branch of the performing arts, or a subject of very limited interest about which to make a documentary.
Here, the licence fee actually puts the BBC in an untenable paradoxical position. Either it screens the most popular programmes to justify the universal nature of the licence fee, or it shows only minority programmes that would be commercially unviable, thus forcing the majority to pay for something they do not want.
Now, it is one thing to fund treatment for some obscure but fatal disease on the NHS which numbers only a handful of cases every year, but however passionately someone may defend public service broadcasting, it should not be such a critical need that it justifies the coercion that may be necessary for, say, lifesaving medical treatment.
To this point, you may note, I have not mentioned the pay of TV ‘stars’ or BBC executives, or the incredible amount of waste at the Corporation. This is not to say it isn’t relevant; to the contrary, if the BBC were not tax-funded then how much they paid their staff, or how many hundreds they sent to Glastonbury, would be of far less consequence. However, to focus simply on these matters would distract from the fundamental problem arising from the way the BBC is funded.
In a mature free(ish) market for broadcasting there is no requirement for one, particularly when it means a state players having such ‘undue influence’ over that market. In the days when the BBC was the only broadcaster, the licence fee was a practical and effective way of funding the Beeb. However, these days state broadcasters are becoming the playthings of dictators. We have the technology, now let’s set the airwaves free.
“Set the Airwaves Free”, by no coincidence, is the rallying call of The Freedom Association who will be launching a campaign to reform the BBC on Wednesday 14th September: Facebook details here and a related piece here by the TFA’s Tom Waters. (Alas, diary clashes prevent me from attending. In any case, I suspect they’d get fed up if I used up prime drinking time by airing my rambling thoughts…)