Helen Martin: BBC licence fee is a relic of a past age

WIA satrises the labyrinthine office politics of the BBC  but for many the licence fee is no jokeWIA satrises the labyrinthine office politics of the BBC  but for many the licence fee is no joke
WIA satrises the labyrinthine office politics of the BBC  but for many the licence fee is no joke
REVELATIONS about the BBC's drift towards privatisation have re-opened the controversy over both the equality of pay between women and men presenters and the extortionate levels of pay so many enjoy.

Those employed through independent companies don’t have to have their salaries divulged or limited.

But surely the biggest question of all is, why should UK citizens be subject to a compulsory licence tax for something that is, bit-by-bit, becoming a commercial enterprise?

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BBC Studios (the production arm of the operation) is now a private business. The proposal is that BBC Worldwide (which sells BBC programmes to other countries) is about to join up with BBC Studios. We must have the right to know exactly which parts of the institution still belong to the public and where our licence fee goes.

Originally it was payment for the right to own a radio or television set and receive broadcasts, something which is now largely consigned to history as the majority of countries round the world have either never had such a licence fee or have abolished the anachronistic charge.

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In Europe the tradition goes on, but in Poland for example, the national station is predominantly funded by advertising.

With hundreds of stations on today’s TV screens, the only ones who receive our licence money belong to the BBC. If viewers have an appetite for access to recent movies or major sporting events, they can opt to pay for a specific package, be it from Sky, Virgin, BT or any other supplier, over and above Freeview. But that’s a matter of choice.

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Probably the most significant factor of the BBC for viewers is that its programmes are not interrupted by irritating commercial breaks (although increasingly between programmes, it plugs its own products and shows).

But if that was put to a vote, how many people would be prepared to tolerate adverts every 15 minutes if it saved them £147 a year?

Many of the BBC’s most successful programmes aren’t made by the BBC at all. They are made by independent production firms. And now that the BBC’s production arm is a commercial company, it means the BBC channels become a customer like any other and don’t necessarily get first shout.

Public ownership meant we were entitled to know the salaries of stars. Now BBC Studios, as a separate firm, is no longer required to reveal those ludicrous earnings. When BBC Worldwide bails out, presumably it will benefit from the sales of “BBC” programmes around the world, and where will all those profits go?

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Is the BBC ditching some profit-making potential and depriving itself, and therefore the public, of the returns? Surely that doesn’t make sense. Or is there some complicated financial arrangement in place for these commercial spin-offs to share the revenue with the “mother ship”?

Are production and sales arms still publicly owned despite becoming private, commercial outfits, and could this just be an elaborate scheme to keep expensive contracts under wraps?

To say this is confusing is a gross understatement. As licence payers we are entitled to a clear explanation of what’s going on, where our fees are spent, and whether or not there is any justification for the UK continuing with a compulsory TV licence.

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