Can pay, but why should we?

Observations on the licence fee

Earlier this year, TV Licensing, the agency that hunts down licence-fee evaders, applied psychological profiling to its quarry. It identified seven types of impost-dodger, from the too-busy-to-pay "work-hard, play-hards", to the feckless "here-and-nows", who squander money on unnecessary food for their kids. Now, an eighth type must be added: the conscientious objector.

The first refusenik was a farmer insistent that the licence fee conflicts with his right to free communication. Then, a former Soviet dissident incensed by BBC bias launched a campaign of mass disobedience. Yet as a prime generator of women's convictions, licensing also criminalises female poverty. How long before feminists too are daring Auntie to jail them?

The BBC has at last moved to defend its £2.5bn-a-year milch cow - not with a ringing justification of this regressive poll tax, but with a claim by the director-general, Greg Dyke, that there is no "viable alternative". He needs to do better.

Dyke's chairman, Gavyn Davies, maintains that everybody he meets considers the licence fee a great bargain at a mere £112. If he's right, the BBC need not fear a switch to a subscription, since everyone would happily volunteer what is now compelled. At present, machinery for charging is not readily available, but the BBC is investing over £300m a year of that licence fee income in getting us all to go digital. If this works, charging, whether for rafts of services, single channels or individual programmes, can be made simple and painless, as Sky and cable viewers are already aware.

Ah, say Davies and Dyke, but if people opt out of BBC output, one of its great glories would be sacrificed - universality. In a fragmenting world, telly available to all is "the glue that binds Britain together". Moved to tears? OK, but what programmes really have transfixed the nation in recent months? Popstars and I'm a Celebrity on ITV and Big Brother on Channel 4 come to mind. Those shows were available to all because the channels were advertiser-funded. The BBC could be, too. That was the plan when the corporation was founded in 1926. It was dropped because of fears that pressure to make ad breaks saleable might tempt programmers into populism. Yet state funding has proved no bar to ratings-chasing.

Surveys show that most people think the BBC should take advertisers' money rather than theirs. Advertisers agree. The impending merger of Carlton and Granada threatens to turn mass-audience television advertising into a monopoly. By entering this business, the BBC could keep it healthy. Dyke claims to fear for the commercial broadcasters who might lose revenue, but such is the desirability of BBC audiences that their availability could grow the whole market. Some say the absence of ad breaks is the only thing the BBC still has going for it: such people could be provided with their own ad-free, digital, subscription version of its output, instead of expecting the rest of us to pay for their preference. Funny how often "there is no alternative" turns out to mean "I have no argument".