We shouldn't be criminalising non-payment of the licence fee (Image via Getty)

Auntie Monopoly

It’s time to end the dominance of the state broadcaster

Artillery Row

When people defend ‘the BBC’ in the abstract, what do they actually have in mind? The present-day reality or a misty-eyed sentimentality? What happened to the BBC of Tomorrow’s World and Fawlty Towers? Or Yes Minister, Civilisation and The Office? The BBC used to produce high quality, original content that no other channel would or could. But now they chase ratings in a multi-channel market and compete with a multitude of commercial channels, and for no immediately apparent reason.

ITV gained incredible popularity with their reality-TV karaoke show The X Factor, so the BBC commissioned one of their own, in The Voice. Likewise, ITV had some success with Pop Idol, so the BBC emulated them with Fame Academy. Let’s not forget EastEnders originally began as the BBC’s answer to ITV’s original soap opera, Coronation Street. The moral claim made for the BBC’s existence has always been that it provides a public service: to inform, educate and entertain. The Royal Charter provides cover so that the corporation can produce shows of a high calibre without having to worry too much about the ratings per episode, unlike commercial stations which tend to work on a revenue-based business model. This, self-evidently, is not a challenge that the licence-fee funded BBC faces. There’s no competition for their model, so why Auntie puts such a squeeze on its private sector non-competitors is hard to understand. We can all appreciate the harm the BBC’s activities do freestanding, mostly far smaller private companies; it’s much less obvious what actual good this does the BBC, other than the simple pleasure in harming other media organisations.

The number of 16-34 year olds watching BBC television continues to fall. The last annual report highlighted a drop of 56% in that cohort. Young people aren’t interested in traditional terrestrial television, as their consumption of Netflix, Amazon Prime, NowTV, YouTube, Disney+ and other outlets demonstrates. The volume of public money the BBC throws away fruitlessly marketing itself at this demographic is incomprehensible squander.

Recent announcements from the BBC show that while they’re cutting provision of regional news to the people who actually watch the BBC, the magic licence fee tree means they’re continuing to splash out on Right Thinking causes, with an investment of £100m on ‘diversity and inclusivity.’ The aim being to ensure that all shows must now meet a ratio of at least 20% ‘diversity’. By diverse they mean superficially, of course. Real diversity of thought and opinion is irrelevant at the BBC, as demonstrated by the axing of This Week last year, and with the future of Politics Live now uncertain. What the BBC wants is more skin-deep diversity: more brown faces, essentially. The average television programme currently features 23% Black and Ethnic Minority people represented through on-screen talent, in contrast to the fourteen per cent we make up of the general population. It’s a poisonously condescending approach that entirely misrepresentative of reality.

Oddly enough the stale politics of middle aged, middle class white people being doled out in the form of woke programming and tokenistic quotas for on-screen talent haven’t worked: no generation of BBC manager has ever done worse at attracting youth consumers than this current crop has.

Criminalisation of the TV licence disproportionately affects women, with over 70% of prosecutions for non-payment of the TV licence fee affecting them. But maybe sometimes systemic discrimination is just one of those things?

The BBC would do well to remember who its core demographic are. The BBC Trust, its many earlier briefings notwithstanding, is soon about to begin charging over 75s for their TV licenses. The pledge that no charge would be necessary, provided the government agreed to allow the BBC to raise licence fees in line with inflation, and charge for iPlayer – which they of course duly did – has made no difference: pensioners are to be duly soaked for the spending preferences of BBC suits. Outgoing Director General Tony Hall at the time called it a ‘strong deal for our audiences,’ saying, ‘far from being a cut, the way this financial settlement is shaped gives us, effectively, flat licence fee income across the first five years of the next charter.’ But oddly enough, it wasn’t enough, because the BBC can never spend enough public money on the priorities of the BBC. We should bear in mind that these, of course, are its institutional preferences, and not anything as silly as the things the BBC’s remaining audience might necessarily want.

As of 1 August, over three million households will be expected to begin paying the £157.50 per year TV tax, as the BBC hopes to raise £471m. Here, umpteen superficial diversity schemes, there, an endemic, generations-long culture of wildly bloated pay for suits and stars, and soon you’re talking real money. People my age won’t even mention the absurdly gold-plated BBC pension schemes: we might be young, but our blood pressure would soon be at average BBC viewer levels if we did that.

There’s also the problem of discrimination, if that’s still an issue for anyone. Criminalisation of the TV licence disproportionately affects women, with over 70% of prosecutions for non-payment of the TV licence fee affecting them. But maybe sometimes systemic discrimination is just one of those things?

The Defund The BBC campaign I’m involved with aims to address these issues of discrimination, enormous waste, overtly propagandising political correctness, and, using their monopoly to stifle competition. We’re also aiming to pressure the government into decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee by the end of 2020. Too many people are scared into paying a fee they don’t need to pay, due to fear of imprisonment. The magistrates’ courts are clogged up with TV licence cases; it’s a complete waste of public money. We plan to educate people on how to cancel their TV licence legally, and on what one can and cannot watch without a licence.

Surprisingly, the BBC charter still covers all live television. Meaning, one must buy a TV licence to watch or record any TV channel in real-time, even if one never watches BBC television. ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and the hundreds of Freeview, Sky and Virgin TV channels all require a payment to the BBC. This is an antiquated quirk of the Charter that cannot be justified. We’re campaigning for a commitment from the government to alter the Charter, to bring it in line with modern television business practices. Why should the BBC tax people for watching live sport on Amazon Prime, or Sky News on YouTube? It’s patently absurd.

We are doing this because we think the BBC ought to be held to account: one thing you can be sure of, is that the country’s most powerful news organisation, which has driven hundreds of would-be competitors out of business, won’t take responsibility without pressure.

 

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