The BBC’s entry into the modern world is long overdue

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has finally announced her intention to end the BBC’s mandatory license fee. It should have been done years ago, but each time the BBC has successfully pressured the government of the day to extend a system that has long since lost its practicality and justification.

Even now, although Dorries said the next license fee announcement will be the last and that after 2027 there will be time to discuss ‘new ways’ of funding the company, an unnamed ‘BBC source’ describes the proposal as mere ‘speculation’. Obviously they are determined to make their case, as before, and try to keep their money on license fee payers money.

The license fee is a throwback to when broadcasting was a BBC monopoly. It was then suffering from the same problems that beset other industries and state utilities. When consumers are unable to go elsewhere, the industry tends to be captured by its producers and serve the interests of its workforce and administrators rather than those of its users.

During its monopoly era, BBC radio played virtually no pop music because the Musicians’ Union limited ‘needle time’ so that session musicians’ jobs were protected. The monopoly was broken by offshore pirate stations, and although the Labor government of the day banned them, the genie was out of the bottle. The Conservative Opposition had seen the demand for competition and pledged to allow competing commercial stations, which they did when they took office.

Even though the BBC now faces competition from broadcasters funded by advertising and subscription revenue, the legal obligation to pay the license fee means it still has a producer-driven culture that separates it from its viewers and listeners.

Critics have also questioned the morality of a flat tax that weighs as heavily on the poor as on the rich, and as heavily on those who don’t watch or listen to its results as on those who do. People are also asking why those who don’t pay should be subject to fines and imprisonment. After all, Sky subscribers who don’t pay have their service cut off, rather than face a criminal record or jail time.

Surprisingly, nearly a third of female convictions are for non-payment of the fee, and some people are imprisoned for non-payment of fines imposed. The typical victim is a single mother in financial difficulty, who simply does not have enough money to pay the licensing fees. Figures from the Department of Justice show that an increasing number of women are acquiring criminal records because of it.

People were appalled by terrorist license fee advertisements featuring police sirens, feet creaking on gravel driveways and faces frozen in horror at the chime of the doorbell. Using the threat of criminal prosecution to terrorize non-payers into submission is less liberal democracy than the worst form of authoritarianism. It’s indicative of an unfriendly attitude towards consumers, to put it mildly. Fortunately, as the culture secretary said so, “the time when the elderly were threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocked on doors” is now over.

The BBC might have justified its role as a public service broadcaster, but made the fatal decision years ago to justify its license fee by attacking mass audiences. While this may have brought the company closer to the audience it serves, it also means that much of its output is now virtually identical to the type of programming that other channels fund through advertising and subscriptions.

Of course, the BBC also produces some of the best programming in the world and derives considerable revenue from overseas sales. If he were to compete for public service funds, there is no doubt that he would win many such bids. But for his populist output, the Culture Secretary is right. The license fee is an anachronism that is no longer relevant or tolerable in a world of multiple channels funded from multiple sources. It will have to use advertising and subscriptions, as other channels do, and finally enter the modern world where it must earn income rather than coerce it.

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Madsen Pirie is president of the Adam Smith Institute.

The columns are the author’s own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.

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