In an age of round-the-clock, multichannel television, the £139.50 a year BBC licence fee is not only an anomaly, it is no longer sustainable
Let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that I were to hold a gun to your head and demand money. You would, I imagine, bridle. You might even demur. Let us then also suppose that I raised a mollifying hand (the one not holding the gun) and said: “Please don’t take offence. You are not, as they say in the TV game shows, leaving empty-handed. I am going to give you a stuffed, hairy-nosed wombat.”
“But I don’t want a stuffed, hairy-nosed wombat,” I hear you cry.
“Tough,” I say, narrowing my eyes and turning nasty. “That’s the deal.”
Does this absurd scenario remind you of anything? It ought to. Something like it happens every day to hundreds of thousands of householders. It’s the racket known as the television licence fee. A state authorised body calling itself Television Licensing demands money with menaces. If you think I overstate the case, look at its latest TV ads whose sinister Stasi-like message is: “We know who you are. We know where you are. There is no escape.”
If you refuse to submit to the extortion, the chances are you will end up in choky. That is the way with the enforcement of British law. Crimes against the state merit condign punishment. Crimes against the individual – burglary, for instance – warrant a ticking-off for the perpetrator and, for the victim, a letter from the Old Bill offering counselling.
All of the money gathered at gunpoint – a blood-sucking £3.4bn a year at the last count – goes to the BBC. Bootless to protest, however, that you do not want the hairy-nosed wombat – a third of households in the UK watch less than five hours of BBC programming each week – the choice is simple: pay up or pay the consequences.
It is an absurd arrangement that is no longer sustainable. The licence fee is an historic relic from the days when broadcasting channels were few and the potential power of television so feared by the politicians that substantial state intervention in the market was thought necessary.
The fiction, propounded then and still advanced today, is that the fee is a licence to receive broadcast signals. In truth, it is a fee to receive the BBC. But why should you pay for something you seldom, if ever, watch or listen to?There was once a contrary argument, as admirable as it was worthy. It was known as the Public Service Broadcasting Defence and went something like this: left to its own devices the mass market will demand and receive brain-rotting rubbish; so, the market must be bypassed to allow the creation of quality programming whose producers are freed from competitive commercial pressures. At first, it worked. The BBC established a reputation for delivering a nice balance of information and entertainment both middle- and high-brow.
Gradually, though, it went wrong. The advent of a brash and shamelessly populist ITV; the incumbency in the Sixties of a BBC director general, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, who rid the corporation of its middle-class values; the recruitment of people with a left wing/liberal mindset who in turn hired more of the same; and, above all, the smug, insensitive arrogance that infects every organisation funded not by the sweat of its brow but by the easy flow of public funding – all of these and more produced the modern BBC. An insensitive, too-big-for-its-boots, broadcaster most of whose output is as bad as, if not worse than, its commercial rivals.
Today, the BBC is locked into a kind of circularity that makes a hamster on its wheel look like a model of purposeful effort. The corporation wants to attract the largest possible audience to retain popular support for a high licence fee, which it needs to produce the kind of tosh that will attract the largest possible audience.
That is not merely foolish, it is lamentable because the public service argument is as valid today as it was in the Thirties. So, what is the answer? Put simply, it is hefty cost-cutting and downsizing, not the rumoured and feeble top-slicing of the licence fee, the money to be redistributed to other channels. The BBC should be drastically slimmed down to a single TV channel and a single radio channel, each funded by public subscription and dedicated to producing quality programming that the mass market cannot or will not provide.
In an age of round-the-clock, multichannel television that can be watched on personal computers and mobile phones free of detection, a broadcasting organisation funded by state-sponsored coercion is not only an anomaly, it is an affront. v