BBCI was amazed to discover from my blog back-catalogue that I have never written about the television licence fee, quite an oddity given how much it pisses me off. For those of you who live outside Great Britain you may well be amazed to discover that we must pay a fee of £140 each year just for owning a television set, and that fee is used primarily to fund the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC is loved by many, and I must admit to watching it quite a lot compared with other channels. My attack here has less to do with the quality of the BBC’s output than with how it is paid for.

Ofcom, the media regulator in the UK, issued a report a few days ago outlining what it thought should be done with £150 million a year in licence fee money that is currently being used to fund the switch over to digital and which will be freed up once that process is complete in 2012. They have a few choices: (1) give the money to the BBC, (2), give it to several other terrestrial broadcasters, or, what to my mind is eminently more sensible, (3) give it back to the people it was forcibly taken from in the first place. Ofcom appears to be favouring option (2), arguing that these other broadcasters are facing a financial squeeze that will make it increasingly difficult for them to produce “public” programming such as children’s TV, documentaries and regional news. They warn that without such intervention the BBC would become a monopoly for this type of programming.

Classic. Talk about not being able to see the forest because all the trees are in the way, eh?

Why can’t these butt-munches see the obvious: the BBC has such power because of the licence fee in the first place. If having this power is bad then why can’t Ofcom realise that the very thing which makes it powerful – the licence fee – is also bad and thus should be scrapped. Why does Ofcom think it’s a good idea to expand the culture of public subsidy in the media? Rather than asking themselves “what can we do with the extra £150 million?” they would be better off asking why we have any public funding of television channels at all. After all the kind of broadcast media that best serve the public are those which are free, competitive, innovative, and diverse. But to make more channels reliant on public funding is contrary to these ideals.

There are lots of other industries which are important in any society but which have flourished purely through ingenuity and a free market: book publishing being a case in point, newspapers another. Why should public money go to terrestrial television channels as opposed to books, newspapers or the providers of online video and audio?

Lots of commentators have been stressing that the licence fee makes little sense now in an increasingly digital age with a host of cable televisions channels and, of course, the internet. I see their point but would want to question whether a tax on television ownership to fund a broadcaster was ever a remotely sensible idea. Television and radio, like all forms of information and entertainment, is a matter of personal taste, value and choice. If someone never watches the BBC why must they pay for it by virtue of owning a television set?

I always wonder why there isn’t more of an uproar about this. Whether or not you wish to watch the BBC you are compelled by law to fund it by virtue of merely owning a television set, on pain of a £1000 fine, and possibly jail. With the move to digital TV, viewers are being offered more and more channels and more and more choice about which channels they receive. Why should we be compelled by law to fund a television service we may not actually want? Why were we ever taken in by this?

The classic defence of the licence fee is the old “public service broadcaster” argument. It seems that virtually anything can be justified these days by prefixing to it the words “public service.” Just what in the name of the Ten O’Clock News is a “public service broadcaster”? And what is it about the BBC that justifies that label? Looking through the TV guide I see countless similar programmes on a whole host of stations, none of which charge me almost £140 a year whether I like it or not. The BBC isn’t unique in any way. Even if it was unique this would still not justify forcing people by law to fund it.

“Public Service Broadcaster” apparently means showing programmes that are “in the public interest.” A glance down the TV and Radio guide makes nonsense of this notion as applied to the BBC. Take its main TV channel – BBC 1: is it in the public interest to know if two gormless sods are going to get it together on some bloody soap opera? Is it essential public knowledge that some Kenyan got his unpronounceable name in lights for running countless miles without stopping? Or is it important for us to be aware of what the Joneses thought of the Smyth’s painting their living room shocking pink in yet another reality make-over show? Very little of the BBC’s schedule can seriously be defined as “in the public interest.” However, even if something is “in the public interest,” this still would not justify a licence fee. Is taking our money, riding roughshod over personal choice and abrogating our values in the public interest? I would think not.

As with any service, the user is best placed to decide which service he wants and needs, and thus to decide which services he hands his cash to. If someone doesn’t want to watch the BBC, there should be no basis on which to compel him by statute to fund it. Why is the principle of “pay your money, make your choice” so difficult to understand? There are many valid ways of funding the BBC – for instance, through subscription deals, or through the selling of advertising. The BBC, on the whole, is a decent broadcaster. It can and should compete in a free market; and it would be better for them and better for us if it did.

In the end it comes down to an argument that John and I have used on several occasions in other contexts: if the BBC are doing a good job then they will gain widespread support and have little problem funding themselves. On the other hand if they aren’t doing a good enough job they won’t attract the support and thus will struggle. Under either scenario public funding is idiotic: in the former it simply won’t be needed, and in the latter it simply won’t be deserved.

Stephen Graham