Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Abolish the Licence Fee

I feel about the BBC rather as Richard Dawkins feels about God: I find it both frustrating and inexplicable that so many people, despite all the evidence to the contrary, continue to believe in it. Like religion, the Licence Fee (and the BBC itself) may once have served a useful function. In a different world, the BBC (like the church) was an important institution that served as a bulwark of culture and intelligence. It reflected and enhanced national life. Without thinking too much about who or what it was for, it found an appropriate balance between the popular and the highbrow. But that was a long time ago. Now, like a church that has ceased to believe in God and thrown away its traditional liturgy (I mention no names) the BBC is sustained largely by inertia, and exists principally to perpetuate itself.

The present BBC set up exhibits a kind of logical conundrum. In order to justify continuing to fund itself via a compulsory poll-tax euphemistically called a "licence fee", it must produce output that attracts a mass audience. Otherwise it would face charges of expropriating money from the masses to spend on the entertainment of educated middle class elitists. A sort of glorified Royal Opera House, perhaps - except that bills marked "Opera tax" don't arrive in everyone's mailbox. In today's demotic culture where making a fool of oneself on reality TV qualifies as aspirational the old idea that intelligent programming might broaden the mind, might increase by some margin the national IQ, is still trotted out when the corporation is called upon to justify its privileged status. But it is ever less visible in the output itself, which offers, on a typical night, a diet of low-rent soaps and formulaic dramas set in hospitals and police stations leavened with "documentaries" about car-chases or heart surgery and talent contests indistinguishable from those on other channels. This kind of dross is relatively cheap to make and attracts sufficiently high viewing figures to convince BBC bosses and politicians that it is fulfilling its remit to serve the general public.

But in servicing a mass audience, the BBC is merely duplicating the output of the commercial or subscription channels. Increasingly, BBC1 resembles ITV without the adverts, while BBC2 is generally inferior in its creativity or intellectual weight to Channel 4. The cases of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, currently at the forefront of people's minds, are relevant here. Both, leaving aside the recent confirmation of their boorishness and arrogance, are talented performers who attract large audiences. If their puerile conduct is found to be off-putting by Grumpy Old Men or Daily Mail readers, it is nevertheless a reflection of the depravity and shallowness of contemporary culture. Would that so many listeners could be attracted by lectures on Plato.

Many of the voices raised in their defence over the past few days have pointed to the outrageousness and danger of their work as a justification in itself. And of course there is a place for both, and for the deliberate causing of offence, and for envelope-pushing, even, in the right circumstances, for bad language. But that place is not a publicly funded network which threatens those who would prefer not to pay for its services with prosecution or even jail. If Ross and Brand are worth their large salaries, then they should earn them in the marketplace and not live as parasites on the public purse.

If the BBC declined to pay Ross £6 million a year, and drastically curtailed the salaries of other overpaid personalities such as Jeremies Clarkson and Paxman, Graham Norton or Chris Moyles, then it would have more money to spend on programmes of genuinely high quality. And such do exist, although the decline in the intellectual level of arts programming or historical documentaries is sad to behold. A BBC tightly focused on producing (or at least broadcasting) material that the commercial channels were unable or unwilling to supply would of course gain noticeably smaller audiences, which in turn would lead to grumbles about the fairness of charging every household in Britain for the great privilege of watching the TV. This, presumably, is why the corporation continues its long-running process of dumbing down.

Yet a BBC whose output is indistinguishable from its commercial rivals no more deserves the lavish public funding its receives than would a BBC which catered principally for a discerning minority. There should be no justification - or indeed tolerance - for forcing the public (on pain of large fines, a criminal record, or even imprisonment) to pay either for crap they do watch or for high quality public service broadcasting they might not. The switch to a multi-channel world ought to have made the anomalous and anachronistic position of the BBC glaringly obvious. Instead, the corporation had been permitted, indeed encouraged, to colonise the various digital platforms - as they have colonised cyberspace - to the detriment and exclusion of commercial operators. Rather than being phased out, the Licence Fee has shown a tendency to increase ahead of the rate of inflation. The BBC now functions as a kind of black hole at the centre of British broadcasting, distorting the space around around it and sucking anything that gets too close into a vortex from which no light can emerge.

The BBC and the Licence Fee exist in a close, mutually-supporting embrace. Neither is imaginable without the other. The BBC is as it is because of the Licence Fee, which in turn is justified as being the best way of funding the BBC in its current form. It's a classic circular argument, and like all circular arguments is difficult to break out of. Yet neither would be imaginable if they didn't already exist (just imagine what the public reaction would be if TV were entirely commercial, or the BBC funded out of general taxation, and a Licence Fee were proposed). Neither, I believe, would be much missed. Some TV programmes are commercially sustainable. Others would attract funding via subscription, or (if considered in the public interest) might receive direct grants from general taxation. I would put Radio 4 and possibly Radio 3 in that category. Some programmes and channels would disappear, but only because there is no need for them. Radio and television would look and sound remarkably similar, I would guess. We would just all be £140 better off.

Who, though, will bite this particular bullet? Not the present government, which sees in the BBC a mirror-image of itself, not just politically but socially too. Nor, sadly, the Conservative party. The Tory MP Christopher Chope recently introduced a private member's bill to abolish the Licence Fee, only to be told by the front bench spokesman Ed Vaizey that "I want to put it on record that I am a firm supporter of the licence fee, as is the Conservative party." He went on, depressingly,


I can happily cast self-interest aside and speak genuinely of my love and adoration for the BBC. I believe that it is fantastic and that most people in this country regard it as a great organisation and as family. The family analogy is important: we give the BBC the nickname “Auntie”, and, by and large, we like the BBC, but we also feel free to criticise and have rows with it. Sometimes, those rows are incoherent—rows for the sake of having a row, as most of us have in our own families.


Do most people still regard the BBC as a loveable old Auntie? A terminally senile one, perhaps, cared for by relatives who know that deep down they will feel relieved when she's gone. It strikes me as more like a friendly neighbourhood gangster, making its money from a classic protection racket. Of course, if a couple of million people suddenly stopped paying, the whole thing wouldn't last a week.

I began this piece with a religious metaphor, and I shall end with one, for it does strike me that the BBC and its Licence Fee have many of the characteristics of an organised religion. Call it Beebism. There's a creed of sorts: certain highly questionable propositions - quality, impartiality, accountability - are clung to like unimpeachable articles of faith. There is a revered founder, Reith, whose example is held up even as his precepts are betrayed. There are saints (David Attenborough, Stephen Fry) and even a recognisable devil-figure in the shape of Rupert Murdoch. Challenge a Beebist by pointing out the corporation's political bias or the low quality of most of its output and you'll be met by a kind of anguished denial similar to that of a Christian fundamentalist confronted by contradictions in Scripture.

In this theological closed circuit, the Licence Fee is imagined not as pragmatic and outdated solution to the BBC's funding but as somehow morally virtuous. Like God or the church, the BBC takes on a mystical significance as bearer of the national spirit; it is something, as the quote from Vaizey reveals, with which people feel they have a personal relationship. But that's an illusion, of course, as anyone who has come up against the BBC's self-justifying and haughty bureaucracy will have discovered. Just as the late medieval church preached poverty and humility while its cardinals built themselves palaces in Rome, the BBC has become the paradise of a self-regarding elite utterly convinced of their indispensibility.

Yet all is not well. Like the Church of England, the BBC frequently alienates its traditional audience with desperate attempts to draw in younger people who are nevertheless watching it less and less. The habit of TV viewing, like the habit of churchgoing (though more slowly, and later) is on the way out. The Licence Fee and the present structure of the BBC ought to be unsustainable in such a climate. Don't bet on it, though. Beebism, like theism, dies hard.

16 comments:

Edwin said...

It's the rigorous persecution of people who have trouble finding the money to pay for the license that disturbs me.


http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199596/cmhansrd/vo960124/debtext/60124-01.htm -

'Mrs. Mahon: A high percentage of women are in prison because they are fine defaulters or have not paid for a television licence. In 1993, 7.5 per cent., or 278 women, were imprisoned for the non-payment of television licence fees or fines related to that. I pay tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), who has tabled early-day motion 287 on the imprisonment of television licence fine defaulters. He should be commended on his campaign to argue that it is an absolute waste of time and shocking to imprison such people.'

I can't find the reference, but believe that at least one of the recent suicides in a Scottish women's prison was of a TV license 'evader'. At least one. I am a bit more lefty than your good self, but I have no attachment to the TV license system. Bin it.

Lefty said...

Good Post!!!!

Every time I get into a discussion regarding the BBC funding, of those that support the fee, their weak replies in support of the Beeb are normally "its worth the money, just because of the uninterruption to programs by advertising.

The real truth is the BBC is the biggest advertiser in Britain today, think about it.

It's products are the Programs themselves, and their over paid celebrities are its sales force.

Nearly every program that you watch on the BBC it's available as a: Book, DVD, CD, Magazine, Board game or Toy the BBC are even into home ware things like bedspreads, duvets and clothes.

Their Magazine portfolio according to the ABC rankings are amongst the top sellers in the whole of the UK with such titles as top gear, Radio Times, Tweenies and Teletubbies outselling all rivals.

http://www.bbcmagazinesadvertising.com/magazines.html

The BBC shop is available for all to see. Nearly every program that is shown on the BBC is in fact an advert for the product, covert advertising would be a very good term to use.

http://www.bbcshop.com

The Licence fee payer

1) Funds the making of the program
2) pays the high salaries of the BBC sales force.

and then stupidly

They Buy the product

"Stupid is as stupid does."

silas said...

Excellent post as always.

I used to believe firmly in the impartiality of the BBC, and the need for a licence fee. I also used to find commercial television infuriating to watch and attempting to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

In the past few years, however, the BBC has made some truly awful television: too many DIY & cookery shows, various plugs for West End musicals, the many Casualty spinoffs and others too numerous to mention, often just copies of ITV shows.

The supposed impartiality that I used to value, has also gone. Nick Robinson and Robert Peston seem to be so far in the Government's pocket that they've become part of the suit. Both seem happy to push the party line without question.

Paxman, Marr et al are over-rated and overpaid. The woman (the name of whom escapes me) who stood in for Marr and interviewed Mandelson did a far better job of questioning than I've ever seen Marr manage. I wouldn't be surprised if she never got that gig again.

The thing that has saddened me the most, however, is the recent insistence of the BBC (through the TVLA) that not owning a television isn't sufficient reason for not having a licence. If I have *any* equipment capable of showing live television pictures, I MUST have a TV licence, regardless of whether I actually use the equipment for that purpose.

I have many PCs. I have many graphics cards capable of TV playback. I have an aerial on my house. I have a mobile phone that could show TV pictures. I am, to some extent capable of watching TV should I attempt it. I should, according to the TVLA, purchase a TV licence.

I have the capability of owning a dog or raping a child. I've done neither, nor have I been pursued for either offence. I have, however, had several threatening letters and visits from the Licensing people telling me that - unless I pay for a TV licence - I may go to prison.

Extortion with intimidation, I believe it would be called should any private individual attempt it. The burden of proof now lies on the person receiving the letters to show they don't watch TV, rather than the other way around. What happened to being presumed innocent til proven guilty?

lost causes said...

I think a big reduction would be preferable to total abolition. Here are my reasons:

1. Commercial British children's programming is basically dead - all that's left are US imports, and the abundance of advertising can't be good for kids, I don't think. "In the night garden" is the Radio 4 of kids TV.

2. Radios 1-6 are all worth the money when compared to commercial offerings. Even Radio 1 serves the purpose of keeping disinterested teenagers informed about current affairs.

3. The BBC news website and the world service are important bits of Britain's so called "soft power", and help to educate and inform people in developing countries, thus indirectly deterring extremism and conflict.

4. Strictly Come Dancing, Dr. Who et al. are the only bits of joy in the otherwise grey lives of many of Britain's older population.

5. Newsnight, the wildlife shows etc are far better than commercial equivalents.

Everything else can go - and that includes a lot of things. The soaps, the weak sitcoms, BBC3, the property shows, the list goes on.

John B said...

6) BBC4 still produces discussions about Plato, TV plays of Saki stories, and other traditional-BBC-ware that would never be made by commercial stations.

valdemar said...

H, I agree, albeit with a heavy heart. I grew up in a working class household (well, who didn't these days?) where watching the BBC was my mother's choice 'because ITV is a load of rubbish'. And she was right, by and large. You got real history, science, drama, news and current affairs, to a standard so high that it forced or shamed ITV to at least try to compete. Now, though, the BBC is too far gone and the TV license is a disgrace. Radio is of course cheap and could be paid for with a small grant(I've been told by local Beeb folk that Radio 3 is by far the most costly because of all those performance rights). TV can get stuffed, really. I watch Family Guy, Battlestar Galactica, The Shield... I can't think of a single BBC-made show that's essential viewing.

septicisle said...

I can. Spooks, which has just returned, has been brilliant since the beginning, even if it has got more fantastical as it's gone on. Over the past year it made the Age of Terror documentaries which were brilliant, the Trip by Adam Curtis which while some will disagree with was a brilliant attempt at covering the ideas which have shaped our current age, the Earth in Cold Blood documentary series, and I disagree with the above comment on Peston at least: he has been one of the few journalists that has been able to explain the economic crisis without talking down to the viewer, as so many others do, or instantly imagine that the average goggle-box viewer has the intellect of a mayfly. This is without going into the website content, the more than 5 radio stations, the regional stations, and the local news networks, which with ITV shutting theirs down will be around the only ones left standing.

The BBC is far from perfect, and there should definitely be further exceptions added for those on benefits and otherwise to pay a lesser-fee, removing the regressive nature. I fear though once its gone, and it looks increasingly like at least its breaking up is fast approaching, we will bitterly miss it.

The Heresiarch said...

Thanks for the input, folks. Some great comments (especially Lefty's about the commercial aspect).

Valdemar: Doctor Who? Spooks? Little Dorrit? They do exist, it's just they're so few and far between it's hard to believe that, in the absence of the BBC leviathan, some other way wouldn't be found to make them.

Lost Causes and John B, you both fall into the trap I identified of pointing to some good things and thinking it justifies a regressive and absurd tax on viewers. No, Newsnight isn't better than the alternative: the news output of Channel 4 and More 4 knocks spots off anything the BBC does. The wildlife documentaries are popular all over the world; they're a brand. The Natural History Unit would be easily self-sustaining without the Licence Fee. Indeed, without the BBC bureaucracy they could get by without having to do crap like Springwatch. And do you seriously believe ITV wouldn't pick up Strictly Come Dancing? It gets enough viewers; they'd jump on it.

Radio 1 serves no purpose that wouldn't be commercially fulfilled. If "young people" have a thirst for "relevant news" (I was a Radio 4 listening teen, so perhaps I don't count) then commercial operators would fill the gap. This paternalism that says unless it's state funded it won't happen is just bollocks, frankly. The reason it isn't happening commercially is that the BBC distorts the market.

Childrens' programming on the ITV has been destroyed by Nannyish advertising restrictions. But again, if it's thought important to save Blue Peter then a childrens' TV fund distributing taxpayers' money would do the job just fine.

John B, most of BBC4's schedules seem to be films about obscure jazz musicians. And repeats.

The BBC really is just a solution looking for a problem. Or rather, it thinks that it is the only possible solution to any conceivable problem.

WeepingCross said...

If I think of the TV I used to watch deliberately, as opposed to the stuff that was simply on because I lacked the moral fibre to get up and turn it off, almost all of it had disappeared before I actually ceased perforce to have a television set at all. The serials were all US imports, the classic and not-so-classic films had slowly ceased to be shown. Now when I manage to catch any TV (Dr Who apart) I'm dismayed by how awful it is, and that goes for the news coverage, regional and local, as much as anything else. It's just abysmal. I'd happily pay a subscription the level of the existing licence fee for Radio 4 alone; but short of the take-over of the BBC by a revolutionary cadre of producers who actually believe in quality, art, beauty, and civilisation, I can't see the point. And using the judicial power of the State to keep the show on the road is simply disgusting and wicked.

I hope some of your readers from the Corporation stumble across this.

FlipC said...

Ah the essential dichotomy that is the BBC - if it emulates the commercial channels it is redundant, if it fails to do so it is accused of forcing the majority to fund the viewing habits of the minority.

Yet was not the latter the point of both the BBC and of television as a whole; to introduce the tastes of the minority to the majority, to equate a ballet performance with a football match?

Not by any means to force its viewers to conform to the habits of a minority, but to introduce such items as an alternative or as a compliment to those who, for whatever reason, would normally be unable to partake in such things.

The failing is that the BBC has become too reliant on its competitors to set the tone, to let them place the goalposts and set the rules by which it is to be judged.

Having done so it is no surprise or wonder that its output resembles that of its contemporaries; as commercial entities they must obviously be providing that which serves the majority lest they become unprofitable. Thus any broadcasting that may alienate the majority, that risks ratings and would thus be declared unprofitable for a commercial organisation must too be avoided by the BBC.

While the BBC must be held accountable to the people due to the nature of its funding it too must justify its existence by providing that which the others do not and it is indeed the very nature of its funding that should allow itself to take those very risks that would be deemed unacceptable otherwise. The fact that it chooses not to cannot be held as a justification that the concept is in and of itself flawed, merely that the current implementation by its management requires investigation.

AdMan said...

The BBC is not impartial. It is and always has been, the government's mouthpiece...which is one reason there is so much establishment resistance to abolishing the TV tax. Once that goes, HMG looses its privileged access to our homes and minds.

Flip C - but the BBC has become the epitome of bland. You want ballet? Why can't you pay for a subscription just as a Premier League fan has to do? Why the assumption that "high art" has a right to be subsidized via tax? It doesn't.

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that the "fee" is archaic and long overdue for abolition. The BBC is just a tax-funded version of News Corp.

The precious snobbery regarding advertising is irrlevant to me. Capitalism is it good it seems, but not for the BBC.

BBC2 is just a waste of frequency. It should merge with Channel 4. The entire national radio network should be privatised.

And who else is angered to learn that BBC American is ad-funded. The British taxpayer pays, under penalty of fine/imprisonment, for shows that go on to generate more BBC revenue? What fools we are. Ads are good enough for the Americans but not the Brits presumably?

BBC1 should be ad/sponsor funded. If they can't bring themselves to take ads, turn the BBC into a production-only company that can sell its dross to commercial broadcasters.

FlipC said...

AdMan I'm talking about what the BBC was - Football was cheap, ballet and opera was expensive. As I said the plan was to bring 'exclusive' content to the majority. Yes that's changed but the principle hasn't in that the BBC doesn't/shouldn't have to pander to mob rule.

I agree that the BBC has become bland, but is that because it is non-competitive or because it is simply trying to emulate the commercial channels?

AdMan said...

FlipC - The BBC's most popular prog is the awful Eastenders. What does that tell you about the tastes of millions?

Decades ago during the "comfortable duopoly", the BBC had every incentive to go out on a limb...but if memory serves, the BBC of the 1970s and 1980s was also unbelievably dull. Last of The Summer Wine was the bane of my childhood Sunday evenings.

Sure, there is emulation a-plenty. And in emulating, it competes with ITV and Sky. ITV and News Corp hate that because the BBC is taking what they see as their hard-fought audiences who are sold to advertisers. In short, they think the BBC should be doing exactly what you think it should be doing - providing a real, radical alternative.

The main hurdle is the public - you can imagine the predictable whining if Eastenders was cancelled and replaced by some decent home-made sci-fi.

If the BBC is only capable of turgid mimickry, then it should be copying HBO (Oz, The Wire, The Sopranos) and the Sci-Fi Channel (the awesome Battlestar Galactica), and not diving to the bottom of the barrel with ITV and Sky.

Right now, I can't see a reason for the BBC's broadcast TV output to continue to tax funded. That mass market content is already adequately served by the commercial channels.

FlipC said...

"What does that tell you about the tastes of millions?"
That they require something that makes their own lives seem upbeat and cheerful in comparison?

Okay, we're not arguing here - we're agreeing. The BBC has become complacent, but stripping the licence fee away from them and throwing them in with the wolves of commercial television is not the answer. They are a publicly funded organisation and as such require greater scrutiny.

If their only answer is to continue to mimic its rivals then I agree there is no reason to continue to fund it.

You mention Last of the Summer Wine as particularly egregious to you, yet it was highly popular within a a certain age-group that commercial channels pretty much ignored. I'm surprised you missed out Songs of Praise, but yet again how many religious services do you see broadcast on Sky or ITV?

The fact that the BBC fails to take advantage of its ability not to have to pander to the majority is not an excuse to cut all its funding it's an excuse to do as the government have done with banks and take an active role in getting them sorted out.

AdMan said...

On principle, I disagree with funding TV in 2008 via a tax.

How did I forget Songs of Praise?! But recall the dire Highway with Harry Secombe on ITV? And ITV does a reasonable job of providing nostagic Sunday evening progs with the likes of Heartbeat.

There is no need for such PSB requirements today as, looking at my cable TV menu, there are a few exclusively religious channels now.

What kind of oversight are you thinking of? Personally, I believe the BBC should be regulated by OFCOM. Alternatively, we could have direct election to the BBC Trust.

FlipC said...

Nothing personal, but starting a sentence with "On principle" suggests that no argument, even one you may agree with, would alter your statement.

You say that there is no requirement for PSB with cable(and satellite) and yet only recently a news report decried the fact that over this holiday period over 90% of television broadcast in this way would be repeats.

As to oversight perhaps OFCOM, perhaps someone else, someone who at least doesn't measure its success by ratings.