A young person away at college has a knock on the door. An individual with an ID card and a body cam demands a series of answers and reads them their rights on the basis they may have committed the criminal offence of not having a current BBC TV licence.
The person in question – the accused – who wasn’t even the leaseholder, was too naive and law abiding to tell the caller to get lost. The Enforcement Officer was from TV Licensing, the third-party contractor (run by Capita) that the BBC uses to police licences and to put some distance between their brand and their strong-arm processes.
You can imagine how all this made this Generation Xer (and everyone she ‘knows’ on social media) feel about cuddly old Auntie Beeb. Never mind the flack the BBC is taking for withdrawing free licences from over 75s, if anyone was in any doubt that the time for a criminal-law backed universal collection was passed, chasing down YouTube generation, iPlayer-only viewers puts the argument to rest. Every enforcement notice is like a public service suicide note.
It isn’t that I, or anyone I know, wants an end to the BBC and what it represents. But – whether it, or anyone else – likes it or not, the time for a full-service, take on all comers, park a tank on every lawn, BBC is over.
We do want public broadcasters. We need them more than ever to preserve standards in quality and independence of news and to produce the kind of TV (and radio) no one will do commercially. In the UK, that means a strong (but not bloated) BBC News channel (and bulletins provided to other broadcasters?), Radio Four and BBC Two and, well, maybe not much else.
Payment model examples abound abroad, but none are perfect. The crucial thing is independence and hypothecation of collection and allocation. Sell ads, or take a surcharge from those that do? Hardly; ad-driven FTA channels are in at least as big an existential dilemma as the BBC. Tax pay-channel providers, including OTT? No, these outfits are masters of locating beyond the jurisdiction and other tax avoiding manoeuvres. A decimal point sales tax on every pay and OTT sub sold to a UK post code, with transparency about its destination? Maybe.
Whatever the answer, the debate should begin sooner rather than later. Politics around here is febrile and unpredictable, only a fool would count on business as usual as the next Charter round approaches in 2027.