Sunday, 6 July 2014

Is it time to scrap the licence fee?


The nature of technology means that the license fee - unless the basis for its collection changes - is a diminishing return as people switch to self-programmed TV and media consumption. In effect, only big live events would make the cut and these will be on at the local pub, on big screens in the town square and probably in new venues like village halls or community centres.

And the public rather understands this and, increasingly supports scrapping the fee:

Half (51 per cent) of the UK want the BBC licence fee scrapped and the corporation to fund itself, a study of 2,049 Brits by ComRes has found.

Of course the BBC is having some sort of apoplexy at the temerity of the public and refers to its own (unpublished) research on the matter. Research that, naturally, shows a majority supporting the license fee.  What we need to appreciate here is that the BBC start by establishing that the licence fee is value-for-money (which it probably is) and then move to argue that this justifies its continuation. I find that, quite the contrary, the value-for-money defence undermines the rationale for a licence fee - if the fee is such good value then people will surely be happy to pay it voluntarily?

I am also uncertain as to the sense or purpose in having a state broadcaster. In the infancy of TV this rather made sense as did getting the income from licensing the hardware - after all it was only in the 1970s when near universal ownership of TVs was reached. Now, in a world of multiple, competing broadcasters the case for a state system collapses as does the compulsory approach to funding. If government wishes to use part of available output for its messages then, rather than owning the biggest chunk of broadcasting, it should purchase such coverage on the market.

And the way to guarantee the independence of the BBC - something we treasure - could be to take away the government's control of the Corporation's financing. So long as the funding for the BBC is via a state mandated poll tax then it remains a state broadcaster. I see no reason why the majority of people, through one route or another, wouldn't carry on subscribing to the BBC's coverage on a voluntary basis. And we would maybe see a reduction in the Corporation's indulgence in casual financial waste such as sending nearly 400 people to Brazil for the World Cup Finals and similar numbers to cover the US elections and Glastonbury festival.

None of the arguments here are about attacking the BBC. Rather, such an approach would make the BBC a more potent force since it would lose it's 'part of the state' tag and get a defence against being simply dismissed as 'establishment'. The Corporation might be smaller and some of its programming may move to orthodox advertising-based funding models but I believe it would be strengthened by such independence not weakened.



Mick Anderson said...

Even if you want to keep a state-funded broadcaster, the licence fee is a very inefficient way of collecting the money. Just paying for the BBC directly from the Treasury would save all the expense of collection,which I understand is the same as the cost of R3 and R4 combined.

By abolishing the licence you would also lose all of the laws associated with non-payment, and (apparently) remove about 10% of the workload from Magistrates.

Similar thinking should also have been applied when the Chancellor decided to change Road Tax. Instead of wasting a load of money on a new tax-disc-less computer system, he could have simply abolished Road Tax and put a couple of pence on a litre of fuel. The average motorist would pay the same for a years driving, and more laws could be abolished.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately for the BBC and the government, the people are voting with their feet? The youngsters 18 to 30 are all into netflix, project free tv , et al. All free from their WIFI phones and tablets.

They have decided that the BBC and the fee, is something they have no wish to pay, and they refuse to do so.

If the government want a hard fight, and trust me one it cannot win! then they will try to legislate, to lie, to try and coerce people into paying the Fee.

It will all be for nought, the youth have decided, and they will not be denied!

asquith said...

I had vaguely thought that, in bygone days, its purpose was to make sure content that was worthwhile but destined not to make a profit would reach people who couldn't afford to subscribe. It was deemed a more effective way of financing such things.

You can see the point such a thing is trying to make, that culture and that shouldn't be the preserve of people who can afford to pay more. Yet against this is the counter-argument that the government isn't the best judge anyway, especially since the cultural establishment is London-based and funds its own mates, with the provinces allowed to lag behind.

Who's to say? But I want neither advertising of the kind I have to endure whilst watching the Tour de France, nor forking out dozens of individual subscriptions, especially for channels I might only watch once for a specific programme.

And one thing I certainly support is the World Service. (Which I gather is funded out of general taxation, not the license fee). Because it has inspired dissidents through the ages whose state media really are biased in a way that the BBC simply isn't. Set it against Russia Today or Press TV (home to your old mate Galloway) and you'll see what impartiality is then).