Game over for BBC licence?

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“Democracy is the worst way to run a country, except all the others,’” said Winston Churchill. The same may well be true of a licence fee and a PSB national broadcaster. But that doesn’t stop every new Tory government concerning itself with scrapping it, no matter how many much more urgent things they have to deal with.

Why do the Tories hate the BBC? Viscerally, the free marketeers don’t like the idea of a monopolistic service provided by a tax. But more, they believe that the BBC is almost a state within a state, and it is controlled by an MLE – metropolitan liberal elite. Historically, they have certainly had a point; the uniformity of recruitment of white male, privately-educated Oxbridge graduates went on long after even the crustiest of other professions had recognised that they needed to spread the net wider in order to reflect society.

Now, typical of the BBC, having not done enough for years, they over-react and now employment policy is to hire only those that reflect a diversity agenda and ability is not a top priority. Elsewhere in its employment policies the BBC has handed arsenals of ammunition to opponents having effectively promoted tax avoidance through service agreements, and being revealed to be routinely implementing a shocking pay gap between men and women.

So, for the Tories, the BBC will get what it deserves. It says, of course, it is only concerned to bring the corporation into the modern world: how can the BBC justify a universal tax when viewership is declining as viewers chose more and more from the pay-TV and SVoD providers?

The opening salvo focuses on removing the criminal sanction for non-payment of the licence fee. Opponents say it unnecessarily criminalises ‘offenders’ and disproportionately penalises disadvantaged women, often single mothers. The BBC says it will lose £200 million if people are not pursued by the criminal law. Many suggest the BBC should use the civil law, as other utility providers do, but the BBC points out that it, unlike them, cannot cut its service off.

Of course, added to that sentence should be “…yet”. The days when all BBC services (certainly TV) could be provided over IP aren’t that far off. But, until then, if you want a universally available service, a tax seems the only way to provide it. The focus, for now, needs to be on what the BBC should be providing and, therefore, how much tax it needs to take.

Historically, the BBC has never seen a media lawn it didn’t want to park its tanks on from books to magazines, to DTH, to the web. Again, it eventually realised this couldn’t go on. But it is still very grudging in giving up territory, even though it recognises it cannot fight on all fronts. The BBC had better start really engaging with the process of deciding what it really should be doing as a 21st Century PSB and, just as important, what it should not. Once a core service is in place with a significantly lower tax ticket, many of the services now produced may well find a paying audience (paying into the BBC) as well.

Better it begins to set this agenda than have the government do it for it. Sacred cows must approach the abattoir – who, for instance, has ever heard a convincing argument that Radio 2 needs to be tax funded? That £200 million sounds like shroud waving to me and if the avoidance is that great doesn’t it prove the antis’ point? This is the wrong ditch for the BBC to die in – it should concede here and use the political capital gained to begin to set the agenda.

 

 


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