The world is full of inalienable rights – to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and, so it seems, to the televised bilge of our choice. This right is equal and indivisible; to the moron his Cilla Black and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, to the higher minded his David Attenborough and Simon Schama. Each of us is accorded the human right to receive into our homes the programmes of our choice, and to deny us that entitlement is to invite the terrible wrath and vengeance of retributive justice, or at any rate a slap on the wrist by the Court of Human Rights (metaphorically speaking, of course – the court doesn’t like corporal punishment).
But who in this liberal democracy of ours would inflict the cruel and unusual punishment of withholding the birth right of every free-born Briton to summon a pizza, recline on his mock leopard-skin sofa, handmade in Thailand for Ikea, stab a podgy digit on his remote control and conjure from the ether without let or hindrance “Sex Tips for Girls”?
HM Government, that’s who. Yes, it was the custodians of our liberty, our elected masters, who long ago decreed that none of us should be allowed to watch Sex Tips for Girls or any other televised broadcast without first paying a licence fee to the BBC. To begin with it wasn’t quite like that. The fee was originally a tax on the ownership of a crackling, hissing wireless set, and was used to fund the BBC, which back in 1922, was the only legal broadcasting organisation in the land.
My, how times have moved on! Within living memory, Britons have gazed open-mouthed at the dizzy, passing cavalcade of broadcasting – portable transistor radios; the wonder of television, first in black and white then, miraculously, in colour; the advent of commercial TV and then radio; the marvel of satellite broadcasting; the limitless possibilities of fibre optic cable; the arrival of interactive digital TV and digital radio; the glorious dawn of multichannel broadcasting, bringing to the airwaves all the richness and diversity once confined to the printed media. Hold on a minute, who is this puffing along with the procession? This sclerotic relic, this tottering anomaly, this parasite? Why, it’s the licence fee! A grim survivor with none of the charm that age confers, nor any of the mellowness either, this crabbed veteran has the avaricious eyes of the crook and the gall to demand money with menaces.
Is it not ridiculous – more than that, outrageous – that whatever you want to watch in this golden age of broadcasting plenty, you must first pay the BBC a poll tax of &£112 a year? Seen objectively the system would be indefensible, were it not for one stubborn and lasting plea, that of “public service broadcasting”. In the absence of the licence fee, it is argued, no one would provide broadcasting of the quality, impartiality, breadth, depth, intellectual rigour, imagination, and creativity, all imbued with an unimpeachable sense of public duty, that is the unique province of the BBC.
To which, sadly, the response is an increasingly loud and prolonged raspberry. As television evolves it becomes clearer by the day that it is a medium at odds with the notion of public service broadcasting. Clamant, superficial, beholden by its very nature to the fleeting image, it was made in heaven for the trivial and ephemeral, the gaudy and the meretricious. No harm in that, we all enjoy vulgar rubbish from time to time. It’s a harmless form of relaxation, but don’t call it public service broadcasting.
It’s not that the BBC lacks an understanding of public service broadcasting – Radio 4 is a shining exemplar of the principle – rather that in an age of democratised, multi-channel TV, the notion of informing, entertaining and amusing is not what it once was. Sex Tips for Girls embodies all three aims but not in the way that Lord Reith would have understood. Let us face it: if you are literate, educated, and have a mental age in double figures, there’s precious little in director-general Gregory Crap-Dyke’s televisual universe for you, and therefore no reason why you should be compelled to pay the licence fee. Granted, you may still feel the need for recreational rubbish from time to time, but when it’s freely and plentifully available on commercial channels, why pay the BBC as a precondition for watching it?
The question may soon be resolved in the courts. A journalist called Jonathan Miller has refused to pay his licence fee and is challenging the BBC to take him to court. His defence would be that Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights gives everyone the right to “receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority…” The licence fee, he believes, is just such an interference.
Whether the courts find him right or wrong, this is an issue that will not go away. The present BBC charter expires in 2006, by which time a new way of funding the corporation must be found. Of course, between now and then the BBC might suddenly rediscover a way of rising above the dross and drivel and reconciling the requirements of public service broadcasting with the endless possibilities held out by the most powerful medium of communication yet devised. But I wouldn’t bank on it.