Friday, October 24, 2008

House Points: Is the television licence fee doomed?

My House Points column from today's issue of Liberal Democrat News.

Paying for Auntie

It’s an awkward question that won’t go away. How can you justify financing the BBC through the licence fee in a multi-channel, multi-platform, multi-everything world? Increasing numbers of people rarely watch its programmes and the fee is the nearest thing we have to a poll tax. If the BBC has its way, it will cost us all £180 a year by 2013.

That question was posed again on Friday when Christopher Chope put forward his Broadcasting (Television Licence Fee Abolition) Bill. Granted, Chope is one of those Tories you suspect of wanting to see Fox News take over the world, but many MPs who opposed him implied that supporting the BBC means supporting the licence fee.

Labour’s John Grogan, chair of the all-party parliamentary BBC group, was lyrical about "Planet Earth". And it was a great series. But there is no reason to think it could not have been made if the corporation had been financed in a different way.

More than that, Grogan showed the same selective presentation of the facts that the BBC uses. When it puts up someone to defend the licence fee, it is always David Attenborough or Stephen Fry. You never hear from Jonathan Ross (whom they pay £6m a year) or Chris Moyles (a mere £630,000).

As those names emphasise, the BBC does many things that could be done equally well by commercial broadcasters. A few years ago it even took it into its head to develop a rival to Google. And maybe the BBC’s dominance of local radio crowds out true local initiative.

The BBC even goes out of its way to antagonise its liberal supporters. Those advertisements aimed at licence evaders, with their emphasis on "the database", are like something put out by the Public Control Department in a dystopian future. And anyone who has tried living without a television will know how relentless the pressure to buy a licence is.

Chope suggested the BBC should be financed out of general taxation, much as the Arts Council is. Those of us who support the corporation should be interested in this and other alternative models for paying for it. If we cling to the indefensible licence fee for much longer, we may damage the BBC fatally.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the licence fee, at £140, is just about the best value item I buy (the Independent will cost me over £350, Sky £400), and I speak as someone who doesn't watch a great deal of TV any more. For me, the website and radio channels alone would be cheap at the price.

The TV licence can be justified on the grounds that it works - providing a range of material not available anywhere else in the world. Of course, you can argue that we shouldn't be forced to pay for it, but I'm forced to pay for ITV, if through the more circuitous route of advertising (which I'm then obliged have to sit through) - I just don't know how much it's costing me. Why is this system considered any less coercive? Indeed, people who don't even own a TV are having to fund ITV, whether they wish to or not (unless they refuse to buy any item advertised on it). I'm not quite sure why being forced to pay for ITV when I buy a packet of cornflakes is preferable to being forced to pay for a licence if I own a TV.

In any case, the advertising model is in its death throes. A stripped-down subscription service would no doubt please the libertarians, but it would certainly destroy the BBC as a world class broadcaster. My life would certainly have been poorer without the service it offers - for all its faults - but I can see why the right would like to sell it off.

Anonymous said...

The two problems with public service broadcasting as at present are:-
1 A monopoly supplier with no market testing to check value for money.
2 One opinion being presented as if it were impartial- no-one is impartial, everyone has an opinion, and to suggest that such a group can be found is pie in the sky.

I would suggest putting several contracts out to tender, the competing organisations would (between them, not individually) provide a far more balanced view of the world, and would cost less.

Bernard Salmon said...

I agree. The problem with the way the BBC is funded is that people do not have any choice about whether to fund its services, but are forced to contribute whether they watch or listen to its services or not. We should be seeking to phase in a voluntary subscription service over, say, a 10-year period. And if there is any threat to some of the more specialised services the BBC offers, such as Radio 3 or Radio 4 or the World Service, these should have some funding from general taxation, with such funding also available to other broadcasters if they are providing such public service broadcasting.

none said...


...Sure, £140+ may be good value, but that's missing the point... IT'S EFFECTIVELY COMPULSORY!

If it were amended to become a commercial subscription, then no-one would have a problem with it... the problem people have with it is not *really* the left-wing bias; it's the fact that they are compelled to pay for something (whose worldview they are opposed to).

You are not "forced" to sit though adverts on ITV... you can flick over, pause it, get off your arse and switch it off even!
This is a fake argument!

The idea the the BBC is "world class" is also flawed... how much of what is on BBC is actually made by BBC? How much is even British? More to the point... how much of the genuinely popular stuff is made by a more appropriate model for the BBC - HBO?! (& CNN for the news stuff).

The point of the Beeb it to show stuff that would not be commercially viable... hence Ross, Attenborough (loved though he is), and "housey clean is your auction" progs are simply not appropriate... even the OU has been shifted off... it should be a small service provider, doing things like schools programmes, adult education, radio 3, celtic language tv... stuff like that; and that should come straight out of the Dept of Culture, Media, and Sport's budget.

The market distortion effect it's having on the other three terrestrials is devastating... timed with the depression, the effects are likely to cause lasting damage to ITV. C4 & C5 - who are being crushed between Digital & Satellite, and the BBC.

All this is academic anyway, a cursory glance at the BARB stats shows which way the wind is blowing... the 2012 Olympics will be the BBC's last major broadcasting event, after that, technology: the reality of broadband TV; and of digital TV being watched by over 50% of the population will undoubtedly spell the end of the licence fee within 10 years from now.

In many ways, the false triumph of New Labour and the Leftist BBC has sown dragons teeth for them especially now when every aspect of the establishment is viewed with some degree of contempt... the well-rehearsed defences against axeing the licence fee will fall on increasingly deaf ears... they rid themselves of it in New Zealand, and I can see it happening here, not withstanding the Olympics (who actually watches it anyway?!).

Anonymous said...

and there is NAIVE me thinking democracy was about CHOICE

to chose quality tv/radio or rubbish quality tv/radio.

the other rubbish is the idea of those who argue whether the BBC should be paid £140 or 1 penny.

unlike most of 'us' who don't have any protracted interest - those who value 'QUALITY TV/RADIO', should subscribe to BBC at £140 per month.

I will never understand why this is an issue of discussion- as if we have choice.

now that is choice, democracy.

one can google to days end "why should people pay a bbc license fee"

oh sorry, it was to get "quality"- as this is not the preferred argument, i have to remain anonymous.