Monday, November 12, 2012
Reform of the BBC must involve abolition of the licence fee
The capabilities and impartiality of the BBC have come under serious scrutiny in the past few days. So the question has been asked as to whether the current model of the BBC, within a coherent broadcasting policy, is valid for today.
I say no, and the fundamental reason why is that the TV licence fee is morally indefensible.
For any appliance or electrical good one buys for use at home, it isn't the state's business once you get it home. You've coughed up a 20% surcharge in VAT and that's it. Except for televisions.
Ownership of a TV means you are coerced to pay £145.50 for the BBC. Want to just watch DVDs, play console games or watch channels other than the BBC provided by Sky or commercial free to air networks? Tough. You must pay for the BBC.
It's no idle threat. Every year over 140,000 people get criminal convictions for not paying. If you failed to pay your Sky bill, you wouldn't face that. The difference between the Rupert Murdoch "evil empire" so many leftwing detractors claim is BSkyB, and the BBC is palpable. Never have Mr. Murdoch's businesses demanded you pay them for their products unsolicited, with the threat of criminal prosecution if you fail to do so.
So the starting point has to be abolition of the TV licence fee. Besides the lack of equity in that those who listen to BBC radio but do not own a TV don't pay for it (a tax avoidance supporters of the licence fee don't raise), it is simply unjust today to prosecute people for not paying for a public broadcaster when there is technology to allow people to opt out of paying and be denied the content supplied.
Allister Heath has suggested the licence fee become voluntary, and he is right. It would not be technically complex to offer a subscription service, using PCM or other technology built into Freeview TVs and set top boxes to authorise access to BBC channels (except perhaps BBC Parliament) if people choose to pay.
Of course the BBC could also offer an opportunity for people and companies to donate towards the BBC running costs, like PBS stations in the US, but it could also offer packages of stations for people willing to pay for part of it. Radio remains an issue, as this is more complex, but in the interim it could be taxpayer funded. Bear in mind the BBC has a turnover of over £1 billion in its commercial activities, which generates a profit of nearly £150 million. If required to, it might actually be even more clever in exploiting this.
Those who do not want the BBC could still watch all of the other Freeview channels for nothing. However, the BBC would then need to offer a unique proposition to subscribers.
One thing that also should be done is that its dominance, particularly in radio, should be culled. It should not be the dominant local radio broadcaster, and so all of its local stations should be sold, even if they retain access to the BBC News resources on a commercial basis, the BBC should not be so pervasive. Furthermore, there needs to be a review of the scale of its national radio operations. Why maintain an urban hip-hop station, a talkback network, a mixed format adult contemporary station or a south Asian station, all of which have commercial competitors?
The question should be asked - what role should the state have in providing content to the public in an age when digital technology no longer means broadcasting is limited by scarcity of radio spectrum?
Regardless of the answer, the BBC should be regulated by OfCom not a Trust that has proven wholly inadequate in representing the interests of viewers.
From that should be a question about Channel 4. It is fully state owned and itself owns and operates a suite of TV channels, albeit fully commercially funded. Should that remain state owned or be privatised?
Beyond that, questions should finally be asked about why the state regulates commercial TV at all? Channel 5 and ITV1 both retain significant regulation by OfCom which seems increasingly anachronistic when there are dozens of Freeview commercial channels without such regulation.
So here is my manifesto for reforming broadcasting in the UK, it is rather moderate in my view:
- Announce end of the TV licence, offer temporary taxpayer funding to the BBC equal to the licence fee minus administrative costs and an austerity factor of 10% until 2016;
- Wipe all convictions for non-payment of the licence fee from people's criminal records;
- Declare the BBC will be fully funded from a subscription service topped up by BBC Worldwide revenue and donations from 2016;
- Abolish the BBC Trust, putting OfCom in charge of regulating the BBC;
- Institute an independent review of the role of public broadcasting in the UK to report by 2015 on its continued scope and scale including options for the BBC and Channel 4;
- As of 2016, remove Channel 5 and ITV1 from all channel specific content regulation, treating them as if all other free to air commercial broadcasters.