Tough times stress test arrangements, and ideas. One set of ideas that are failing their stress test, I believe, is a three-pronged attack on the BBC: on its irrelevance in a world of Netflix, on advancing a pay subscription model and, more immediately, on decriminalising the TV licence fee.
After the exhaustive process that led to the renewal of the BBC charter from 2017, the government pledged to leave the licence fee model intact to December 2027. Fully aware of that, Baroness Nicky Morgan, the then Culture Secretary, in February 2020, opened up an informal governmental review of the BBC’s existence, and revived a policy, to decriminalise TV licence fee evasion, put out for a hasty consultation that closes on 1 April.
The decriminalisation review is now led by former Culture Minister John Whittingdale who returned to Government as Minister of State for Media and Data and who previously described the licence fee as ‘worse than the poll tax’. Another key sponsor is Andrew Bridgen MP who calls for the entire licence fee to be scrapped and replaced by a pay subscription model that would make BBC services commercial-only.
While the right has mobilised, progressive support for public service media (PSM) has softened. The UK media reform movement, from the late 1970s onwards, has been a pro-public service coalition stretching from traditionalist supporters of the BBC to radical democrats advocating reinvention and extension. Radicals have shared some of the critique of paternalism with free-marketeers, but in place of a vision of transactional purchasing, stratified by wealth, they advance a thoroughgoing democratisation of provision, access, and voice. Yet radical support for the BBC has always been conditional, and perhaps more so now than any time since the Iraq war. The left critique of BBC news coverage, from austerity to Brexit, to the 2019 General Election, as either skewed or supine towards Conservatives, conservativism, and English nationalism, illuminates a wider disenchantment that has drained reservoirs of support. Yet, we must build out from existing public service media, and challenge the politics and ideas that seek to diminish it.
My first reaction to decriminalisation, which may be yours too, was that, whatever else, progressive supporters of public service media should not favour a policy that led to the imprisonment of anyone, and certainly not those in social need, including women in poverty. I did also realise that this was being promoted by BBC critics such as Bridgen whose record defending women’s rights rather lags behind his advocacy for white, male, heterosexuals. Still, it was a shock to read the evidence, including the 116-page report commissioned by the government and conducted by David Perry QC, and see how thin the case for decriminalisation is. The questions asked in this 2020 consultation were exhaustively examined by Perry in 2015, who concluded there was ‘no compelling basis for change’. Decriminalisation of the licence fee would result in increased evasion, higher collection costs, and would diminish BBC income, severely to the detriment of licence-fee payers. The alternative proposals for civil penalties would be likely to have a more damaging impact on low-income households than the current enforcement arrangements. Private bailiffs chasing cost-inflated fines, credit rating damage, does not provide benefits over a system in which the courts can exercise discretion at all stages, and only impose jail for those who wilfully refuse to engage with efforts to manage court-imposed fines. The official figures don’t show if licence fee evasion was ever the sole cause of imprisonment, but do show it is now rare in England and Wales: four women and one man in 2018; no one in 2019.
The only compelling reason to revisit decriminalisation now flows from the burdening of those over-75 years forced to pay unless they are eligible for, and claim, pension credit. This was to start from June and has been put back to August by the BBC in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The need to review care for the over-75s is certainly vital, but this is not caused by the BBC, as presented in the consultation, but by the government’s decision in 2015 to phase out a welfare subsidy introduced by Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2001.
The decriminalisation proposal was failing its stress test before Covid-19, but the weakness of the other two ideas is illuminated by the crisis. The second idea is subscription. This has long been advanced by free-marketeers. In the 1980s the Peacock Committee forecast a technology-enabled TV marketplace of consumer choice. This is a vision of market abundance, yet also market discipline. The predicted collapse of support for BBC pay services, will hasten its removal from the marketplace. As an idea born of social democracy, the BBC’s survival in the market liberal era is an affront.
Yet, however appealing it may be to some, to regard the licence fee as a market-based service, it is not captured in transactions in that way. The licence fee is not a payment for a service, it is a contribution to a resource. The licence fee is a charge on all users of broadcast services that goes to fund BBC public services, the BBC World service, S4C, and local television, as well as broadband roll-out. It funds public service elements in a creative media ecology from which almost all benefit. There are the direct users of BBC services, some 90+ per cent of the population. There are the beneficiaries of the influence of licence-funded media on the creative output of commercial services, driving up quality and standards. There is the nurturing of creative talent and training, spreading benefits and influence across the whole cultural sector, even though woefully insufficient still to redress BAME and working-class exclusions. There are the musicians, music events, arts and cultural activities supported by the licence fee. There is the range of educational materials for all ages, including for those lacking access to resources readily enjoyed by the wealthy.
For those who wish to exercise the right to withdraw entirely from licence fee-funded material it must be recognised that such splendid isolation is barely realisable. The borders of creative work do not align in such a way. Commercial platforms show content funded and supported by the licence fee, employ the talent supported by training and opportunities, benefit from BBC promotion and editorial exposure. A logical extension of refusal to support the licence fee would be the encryption and removal of all content ever supported by the fee for those wishing to pursue a non-BBC life. Even then, there are strong societal arguments to support the licence fee.
Like education, this resource is not contained in a transaction because it is the result of the efforts of many, many people over time and space to generate the knowledge and creative imagination that beneficiaries access. The BBC celebrates its centenary in 2022. The licence fee contributes to a vast repository of material that was ‘paid for’ collectively over the century. Public service media have characteristics of public goods, goods not exhausted by private consumption, of merit goods, whose value may not be immediately apparent within a purchase decision but provide longer-term benefits. Communication services also produce both negative and positive externalities to the transaction that are of huge social consequence. The positive externalities of a well-informed public are essential for a healthy democracy. The negative externalities of communication are amply recognised by the Online Harms policy agency pursued by the May government. There are strong grounds to replace the licence fee by a more progressive funding mechanism such as a household tax set at Council tax band rates, and with welfare policy exemptions based on health, disability, age and social need. However, those changes should be debated as part of a wider review that is inclusive, responsive and evidence-based, not the surround-sound noise for a hasty raid on BBC funding.
The third idea is of Netflix sufficiency, and if that sounds vague it is illustrative of the vague pronouncements of government spokespeople, from Boris Johnson down. As Clare Enders of Enders Analysis, and a host of other industry and academic voices have made clear, the comparison between the BBC and Netflix is spurious. Netflix is a heavily debt-laden commercial enterprise pursuing first-mover advantage. While Netflix excels in certain categories of filmed entertainment and original programme investment, its services come nowhere near the range of the BBC in news, local content, or cultural specificity. Most importantly, Netflix would not have the capacity to offer anything approaching such a range under its current governance and business model.
If the BBC mantra of inform, educate and entertain has been dulled by repetition, the Covid 19 crisis has shown how bright, impressive and indispensable those resources can be. A YouGov poll for Sunday Times, found the BBC website was second most valued source of information (42 per cent) after ‘television or radio’ (54 per cent). In the week 9-15 March 70m UK devices connected to content on BBC News sites and apps, the highest amount ever. The BBC has become the most-trusted news source on coronavirus, according to research from Havas Media Group, with 64% of those polled selecting it, way ahead of the Sky News (29%) and The Guardian (15%). Yet, the education and entertainment roles of the BBC have also been powerfully activated, from ad-free childrens’ programmes, to therapeutic conversation across local radio, to shows to divert us in febrile times.
Three ideas gaining ascendance have been stress tested and found wanting. Their advocates command a huge parliamentary majority, vocal press support, and set the licence fee charge for over-75s primed to explode. Yet is possible to see the case for public service media, and support for the BBC, strengthened out of this Covid-19 crisis. The case for the BBC, and for collective provision of information and creative communications as a public service, has most probably, already been strengthened, alongside that for a better resourced national health service.