BBC licence fee: Why should poor single mums be threatened with prison for not helping to fund Radio Three? – John McLellan

State monopolies are inherently resistant to major change and as public services their hallmark is that any threat of change is characterised as a threat to the public.

Wednesday, 19th January 2022, 4:45 pm
It's time to change the way the BBC is funded (Picture: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
It's time to change the way the BBC is funded (Picture: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

The public benefit becomes confused with the vested interests of those within the organisation in which the producers, not the consumers, come first.

We see it at every level of public service, from the virtually untouchable national religion of the NHS down to council services where competition and choice are dirty words.

Imagine if the telephone service hadn’t been privatised and we all had to apply to the Post Office for an approved mobile phone. We might all still be using bricks.

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The BBC is not a monopoly, but we have no choice but to pay for its services if we want a television, and more than a few would have cheered this week when Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries first announced the licence fee would be scrapped.

There is nothing new in demands to abolish the fee, but whether a so-called dead cat to draw attention away from the crisis engulfing Boris Johnson or not, it was the first time the minister responsible had clearly stated the telly tax was on the way out.

Pre-pandemic, over 100,000 people a year were fined for not having a licence, the vast majority of them women, many being single parents on low incomes, to the extent that it accounts for a third of all crimes committed by females.

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That in itself is a good argument for reform, but since Ms Dorries’ admittedly cack-handed initial pronouncement on social media there has been no shortage of celebrities demanding that the government gets its paws off the BBC’s income.

Who else, they argue, would have given us David Attenborough’s nature programmes and Strictly? It cannot be proved that such programmes could not have been created by a differently-funded organisation, but who produced The Crown and Squid Game?

A stronger argument is that minority programmes with limited commercial appeal would struggle for airtime without some form of subsidy, but then why should a single mum on the breadline be threatened with prison for not helping to fund the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Radio Three or BBC Alba?

Although Ms Dorries subsequently retreated to a two-year freeze, future BBC funding needs to be addressed, not least because the corporation is now losing about 200,000 licence fee payers a year thanks to streaming services.

There are plenty of reasons why alternative income sources won’t be as good as the licence, but then there’s no better business model than threatening customers with jail for not paying, even if they don’t use your services. Imagine being arrested for shoplifting leaving a store without any goods.

Compelled to pay, our money is then used to justify entering and distorting other markets served by commercial organisations.

Of all the suggestions, the least workable is a straightforward switch to an advertising-led model, which would only destroy commercial broadcasters, many of whom supply programmes for the BBC.

Complex perhaps, but the solution probably lies in a hybrid model which combines some direct government grants for core public service broadcasting, subscriptions and increased commercialisation were possible, but using the law to compel us to fund one organisation in a highly competitive marketplace is an anachronism.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston

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