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22 January 2022

Jonn Elledge

In defence of the BBC licence fee

For 44p a day, we get one of the world’s most successful broadcasters, offering access to a vast range of entertainment and information, and a boost to Britain’s global reputation.

Perhaps the most optimistic thing any politician has said in a week when we’ve heard umpteen comments that translate roughly as “Sue Gray will make this all disappear” is a tweet on the BBC from the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries: “This licence fee announcement will be the last.”

For one thing, this statement assumes that a government whose Prime Minister is unlikely to make it to summer will still be setting policy in 2027, and good luck with that.

For another, though, it’s surprisingly difficult to work out what a replacement funding arrangement for the national broadcaster might look like. The notion of a TV licence feels outdated; the threatening letters sent to homes that don’t have one, even if they do not own a television, would be funny were it not for all the court cases and prosecutions for non-payment.

But an opt-in subscription service doesn’t feel workable for a free-to-air broadcaster. Funding through advertising is unlikely to bring in enough money, and would motivate a very un-Reithian focus on ratings over public service broadcasting. And even if funding via taxation wasn’t likely to make the BBC yet more prone to ministerial pressure, which would be a very bad thing, can you really see this government going for it?

All of which means it’s a lot easier talk about ending the licence fee than devising a plan for doing so. Tory ministers like to claim they want a slimmed down BBC that takes a more commercial approach. Whether they’ll still think this when they realise it means cutting BBC Parliament/Radio 3/those radio cars that allow them to do an interview for Today from the road in front of their house remains to be seen. Almost everyone supports a smaller BBC; almost nobody imagines the bits they like being the thing that will face the axe.

But there’s another reason why we should keep the licence fee: it’s really, really great value.

The licence fee currently costs £159 a year, which is slightly less than 44p per household per day. For that, we get eight national TV stations, 11 national radio stations, and so many regional and local variations I’m not going to bother to count. We get high-end dramas such as Vigil or Showtrial, global brands like Top Gear and Doctor Who, mainstream entertainment shows like Strictly and The One Show. We get those bafflingly in-depth Radio 4 series such as A History of the World in 100 Objects, and Melvyn Bragg gradually unpacking all human knowledge through nearly a thousand episodes of In Our Time.

And we get a national broadcaster that broadcasted three seasons of a sitcom about how ridiculous an institution our national broadcaster is. Can you imagine any of the newspapers currently gunning for the Beeb ever doing anything remotely that self-deprecating?

More than all that, though: through TV exports and the World Service, the BBC is one of the most trusted media brands in the world, a huge part of Britain’s soft power. It still broadcasts in over 40 foreign languages, including Russian, Persian, Swahili and Igbo. Yes, Netflix is a bit cheaper. But even leaving aside that Netflix’s original programmes, such as Sex Education, sometimes have a weird habit of removing all hints of local culture, in an attempt to improve their appeal to the American market, Netflix does a tiny fraction of what the BBC does.

No doubt you don’t like all of the things I just listed. That’s the point. Because everyone should be able to find something they like on the BBC, literally nobody is going to enjoy all of it. And that is exactly why it makes sense to fund it like a tax: because we get better results when we all fund something together.

For these reasons and a hundred others, the BBC is one of the few things about this country I feel genuinely patriotic about. Lord knows it has plenty of problems. The pressure to be commercially competitive while also fulfilling its public service remit by providing services that commercial broadcasters wouldn’t, all without getting too big and bloated, has left the corporation with a sort of institutional schizophrenia. Its news coverage has an annoying habit of accepting the framing set by the government of the day, and repeating government lines uncritically. And those letters from the TV licence people remain positively unhinged.

But for 44p a day, we get one of the world’s most successful broadcasters, offering access to a vast range of entertainment and information, and a boost to Britain’s reputation around the world, too. Why on Earth would we risk all that, just because we don’t like how it’s funded?

[see also: Leader: Nadine Dorries’ crude assault on the BBC is symptomatic of the Tory party’s degeneration]

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