Andrew Allison is the Campaign Manager of the Freedom Association, which runs the Axe the TV Tax campaign.
Lord Hall, the Director-General of the BBC, has once again been defending the television licence fee - this time in the Daily Mirror. After reading his latest contribution to the debate, I couldn’t find a single new argument. It is a rehash of all the tired old lines that are trotted out by the BBC’s media department every time the licence fee is criticised.
Two paragraphs are worth picking out though. Here’s the first:
“Some critics would rather the BBC moved to a subscription system like Sky, so only those who paid for the BBC would be able to receive it. Whilst subscription works well for Sky and others, there are more than a few problems in charging people to receive BBC services. Firstly, it would cost a fortune to set up – about £500 million to install new set-top boxes to every TV to control who is watching. Secondly, subscription would mean we would lose one of the things that people most value about the BBC – the way it creates great programmes that we can all enjoy. Even at their best, subscription channels can’t do this. For example just one in 25 Americans watched the biggest episode of Breaking Bad on a US subscription channel, compared to one in five of us Brits watching Sherlock on BBC One.”
Well, only those who pay for the BBC at the moment can legally watch live television. If you refuse to pay the licence fee, heavies from Capita are likely to arrive unannounced on your doorstep demanding entry. You could find yourself in front of magistrates, you could be fined, and if you refuse to pay the fine, you could be imprisoned. We already have a subscription service that funds the BBC. It is forced subscription.
I also do not believe that, with the sheer amount of existing set-top boxes in circulation, it is necessary to install millions of brand new ones. There must be a way of encrypting the signal using existing technology. And if the BBC continues to provide great programmes we can all enjoy, surely the vast majority of us would voluntarily subscribe to receive them?
Lord Hall goes on to say:
“The other charge people make is that the Licence Fee must be broken because technology is moving so quickly. Why pay the fee when you can watch everything on iPlayer? Whilst we now have a huge choice of programmes to watch on catch-up, close to 90 per cent of all TV viewing is still live. When England played Italy in the World Cup, more than 15 million people watched at nearly midnight, because they wanted to share the experience. Fewer than 2 per cent of UK households only watch on-demand programmes – and this is growing only slowly.”
The BBC is good at quoting meaningless statistics. Of course, there will always be a market for some live television. There will always be an appetite for live news, sport, and events such as royal weddings and the commemoration of events like D-Day. What Lord Hall doesn’t go on to say is that many of us will watch live events on other channels. If you want to watch CNN, you still have to fund the BBC.
Many will have enjoyed watching England thrash India at cricket, but will have done so watching Sky Sports. Many will have enjoyed the Ebor Festival from York, and will have done so watching Channel 4 Racing. Because the vast majority of us want to watch live news and sport is not a defence of the licence fee. It is a defence of the free market that has enabled us to watch live major news and sporting events from a variety of broadcasters.
The Freedom Association’s Freedom Zone has become a regular event at the Conservative Party Conference. This year we are based at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, literally a stone’s throw away from the ICC where the main conference is held, but outside the secure zone, so a conference pass is not required. One of the numerous debates we will hold is on the future of the licence fee. Chaired by Iain Dale, the other panelists are John Whittingdale MP, Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee; Alex Deane, and myself. Despite numerous attempts to get someone from the BBC on the panel, no-one has put themselves forward.
I cordially invite Lord Hall to come to Birmingham and argue his case. If he is busy, he can send a representative. If the BBC is so sure of its arguments for retention of the licence fee, surely it has nothing to fear in a public debate?