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Mark Littlewood: The BBC licence fee's time has passed

Mark Littlewood Mark Littlewood is Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which exists to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.

Mark Thompson’s vigorous defence of the BBC’s role and contribution to broadcasting marks the first skirmish in the build up to re-evaluating the licence fee and the role of the corporation. It’s a fight that comes round every few years and which the BBC usually wins. This time, however, things could be different – and they certainly should be.

The amazing transformation in broadcasting technology and output in recent years makes it increasingly impossible to intellectually defend the BBC’s extraordinarily privileged position. The explicit aim should be to radically reduce the BBC’s broadcasting remit with the intention of abolishing the licence fee altogether in the not too distant future.

The debate about the future role of the BBC closely mirrors that of arts funding more generally and in both cases defenders of the status quo are masterful in conflating two very different arguments. It’s important to decouple these arguments and deconstruct each one individually, rather than allow them to hang together.

The first argument goes that much of the output is wildly popular, critically acclaimed and the sort of thing “we should be proud of”.  A commonly given example is the new run of Doctor Who, which has swept up a plethora of awards and proved a smash hit in the ratings tables since its relaunch in 2005.

But it’s precisely these sorts of programmes that don’t require financial support. Doctor Who is a money spinner. Sales of DVDs, foreign broadcast rights and an impressive merchandising empire obviates the need for any subsidy. In fact, had the BBC been subject to normal commercial pressures, it is highly unlikely that they would have cancelled the original run of the series in 1989. Because Michael Grade and his cohorts on the BBC’s all-powerful “sixth floor” took a dislike to the programme, they chose to cancel it rather than invest in it. This is a strange approach indeed to public service broadcasting – and certainly isn’t the way to give the public the broadcasting they actually want.

The second set of arguments deployed by defenders of the BBC is that there is a whole raft of programming that isn’t particularly popular, but fulfils a worthy function despite not commanding an audience prepared to meet its costs. But it’s increasingly difficult to justify why the BBC needs to be the platform for such programming – or indeed whether such programming can be justified at all. As we move towards a situation whereby a vast majority of households have access to hundreds of television channels and broadband internet access, why do religious programmes or educational programmes need to be transmitted on one of the main BBC channels?

The sheer variety of television available should also prompt us to ask if we really need the BBC to retain its aim of entertainment. If we ever needed the British Broadcasting Corporation to produce game shows or screen sporting events, we certainly don’t need them to do so today. Radio 1 may be a popular station, but it is impossible to argue that it is really providing a service that isn’t readily available commercially elsewhere.

The way we receive and consume broadcasting has changed enormously since the days when people crowded round vastly expensive TV sets to watch the Queen’s coronation. All of these changes should point towards a diminishing rather than growing role for the BBC.

Certainly, any “public good” arguments are increasingly untenable. When it was the case that you couldn’t broadcast pictures to Mr. Smith at No. 16 without Mrs. Jones at No. 17 being able to pick up the same pictures, a compulsory licence fee may have had some sort of justification.  But for a large and increasing number of households, this is no longer the case. I can choose to sign up to the Sky Sports channels whilst my neighbour can’t access the pictures, but instead selects to pay for movie channels.

Some BBC platforms may opt to be free-to-air and rely on advertising. Others may be subscription based. Pay-per-view television is now increasingly commonplace, so why should licence fee payers with no interest in motor sport be expected to subsidise my desire to watch Formula One? At the merest flick of a switch, we can charge a few pounds for each race to the people who actually do take an interest. The same argument goes for prestige programmes such as Newsnight. I’d be happy to pay a good few pennies to watch each programme, but am at a loss to justify why those who plump instead for Major League Baseball on ESPN should share the financial burden.

Just because I want to end the licence fee, doesn’t mean I think Mark Thompson and the BBC have a poor product on their hands. It’s just that I think they should be obliged to package up their product and try and convince me to buy it, rather than forcing me to.

It’s worth remembering that the licence fee is an unpleasantly coercive measure. Hundreds of thousands of people have been criminalised for refusing to contribute to the BBC – and many hundreds thrown into prison. This is a heavy human price to pay in the name of keeping Strictly Come Dancing on free-to-air television.


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