Democracy, according to Winston Churchill, was “the worst form of government, except for all the others.” To a degree, I think, the same might be said about the UK’s television licence fee. The BBC’s charter – the legal framework that establishes it – is up for renewal, and so once again there are many discussions about how it’s funded, and what role it should have.
I’m not going to pretend I’m not a fan of the BBC. I think it does some amazing things – though it’s by no means perfect – and it also does some things that drive me nuts. There’s too much churnalism, even on the Today programme. And I think it’s too willing to let other people attack it and not come out fighting.
But there are astonishing things. Not just the well known dramas, like Sherlock, and series like Dr Who, but the fact that it’s the world’s biggest commissioner of new classical music. The BBC Proms is an amazing festival, and every concert is broadcast. Then there are school’s programmes, and online resources to help people learn, and initiatives like the new Microbit computer. Think what the UK’s popular music landscape would have been like without John Peel, if all we had were stations with carefully chosen commercial playlists.
Much of what the BBC does simply wouldn’t be done by a commercial organisation, or would be so laden with sponsorship logos and mentions that it would be unbearable. And yes, there’s “Don’t tell the bride” or “Homes under the hammer” or whatever other stick you wish to beat the beeb with. But you know what? People watch them. They may not be people like you, or me, but if no one watched them, they wouldn’t be made.
And it’s right, if the BBC is to be paid for by all of us, that they make things for all of us. You can sneer at Eastenders, but there’s probably someone watching it somewhere who thinks that Only Connect is a load of wanky toff bollocks. Boris Johnson said he thought the BBC should do more things like the award-winning Breaking Bad. You know what? They do, Boris. Shows like Sherlock win Emmys too – and the BBC produces them on a shoestring compared to some of that US material.
There are a couple of problems with the argument that the BBC should only produce “quality” shows. The first, obviously is that not everyone agrees what constitutes quality (is it the number of fine victorian bonnets?), though it seems to be a very middle class idea of quality. And the second is that if you focus on a single set of people too much, everyone else gets left out.
If all the BBC makes is “quality” – and especially if it’s told that anything successful has to be given to the commercial rivals – then in the end you end up with lots of worthy material that’s not watched by many people. And so people again say “cut the funding” and slowly but surely it fades away. If the BBC is to exist, it has, in my view, to produce material that appeals to everyone. It can’t simply become a nice service for people who like decent middle class pursuits.
But how should it be paid for? There’s the rub… The licence fee, many say, is regressive, and it’s certainly true that far too many people get sent to prison as a result of not being able to pay when ordered to do so by a court. What are the alternatives, though?
Paying the BBC to do its job out of central taxation is, I think, a very bad idea. We’ve seen recently how things like the funding for the World Service has been transferred to the corporation – it used to be paid for by the Foreign Office – with little discussion. And the licence fee has been “top-sliced” for a range of things, including rural broadband, Welsh language programming, and digital switchover help. That’s under the current regime, where the BBC collects the money itself.
Now imagine if, instead of collecting the money itself, it had a government with an even firmer grip on the purse-strings. It’s quite easy to think of situations in which, keen to plug a hole, or offer a benefit, the government of the day could use some of the money for something else, or decide that they didn’t like coverage of a certain area, and punitively reduce funding. We really don’t want to go down that route, I think.
Another oft-promoted option is subscription. “If people like the BBC so much,” some say, “they’ll willingly subscribe to it.” And perhaps they would – a recent BBC research project found that people who said they didn’t want to pay were much more willing after just over a week with no access to the corporation’s services.
Be careful what you wish for here, is my view. Funding the BBC by subscription could have knock-on effects that would change the shape of broadcasting in the UK. How so? Well, at the moment, a huge number of people rely on free to air broadcasting, principally Freeview but also Freesat. Neither of those systems has the ability to handle subscriptions. Everyone would need a new TV or set top box. That’s a hell of a lot of money to spend – and it’s why subscription simply isn’t an option in the short term – it’s unlikely, in my view, to be possible until at least the next charter review, in at least another ten years.
Why do I think that? Imagine what would happen if the government announced that the BBC would move to subscription for the next charter, which starts in 2016. Freeview and Freesat viewers would need new equipment. They’d not only have to replace things – including digital recorders – that are only a few years old, but also fork out for a subscription on top.
Both the current subscription TV services in the UK – Sky and VirginMedia – will, however, give you a free box when you sign up. And you’ll get more choice than you ever will on Freeview. I think a lot of people would take the simple option, and jump to one of those services. The BBC has a massive share of the audience on Freeview, and a lot of those would simply jump ship. How viable would Freeview remain without the BBC? Are the likes of ITV and Channel 4 enough to keep the platform alive? I fear not.
If a substantial number of people moved to Sky or Virgin, there’s a real risk that many other channels on Freeview would decide it’s not worth the cost of transmission. You could, ultimately, see a situation where free to air broadcasting in the UK is massively diminished, with little or no new programmes at all.
So, subscription – at least in the short term – is a double edged sword. Perhaps, if planned ahead, so we knew that subscription was coming in a decade or more, we’d mostly have time to replace equipment before then with boxes and TVs that will be ready for when it happens. But if it’s rushed, it might solve the BBC’s funding problem, at the expense of killing a lot of other things.
The licence fee isn’t perfect by any means. The online loophole is an anomaly that should probably be closed. And perhaps it would make more sense as a household levy rather than being directly linked to ownership of TV equipment. But it certainly beats direct funding by government, and I can’t see how a change to subscription can work, unless it’s planned a very long time in advance.