Andrew Allison is the Campaign Manager of the Freedom Association, which runs the Axe the TV Tax campaign.
Readers may remember that back in August I challenged Tony Hall, BBC Director-General, to debate the future of the TV licence fee at this year’s Freedom Zone in Birmingham. Although I know he saw the article, predictably, he didn’t get in touch. As a result, no-one from the BBC was represented in the debate.
The BBC did debate its future at a fringe meeting organised by its friends at The Guardian, though. And they weren’t represented by a minnow either. Peter Salmon, BBC Director of England, and James Heath, BBC Director of Policy, had their say, and James Heath also made the journey to Glasgow for the Liberal Democrat Conference to make the case for the licence fee at a similar Guardian-organised fringe meeting. Interestingly, Mr Heath turned down my offer to be a panellist at our fringe meeting at the Freedom Zone. It appears the BBC is only willing to debate its future amongst friends. Any awkward questions, and you won’t see them for dust.
Now the BBC has launched its latest media offensive by simultaneously releasing across all its platforms a star-studded version of the Beach Boys classic, ‘God Only Knows’. Officially it was produced to mark the launch of BBC Music, and all proceeds from sales will go to Children in Need. How on earth could anyone object?
What it is, or course, is a dog whistle, subtly (or not so subtly) trying to convey the message, “God only knows where we’d be without the BBC, and the BBC needs the licence fee”. How else could it produce something of such quality?
Although all of those taking part in the recording gave their services for free, the production was hardly done a shoestring. God only knows how much it cost, and outside the BBC, no-one will ever find out. Anyone who has tried sending a Freedom of Information request to the BBC to enquire about the costs of similar productions has been greeted with a flat refusal.
Nick Ross, the former BBC Crimewatch presenter, has said that risk aversion is driving the BBC into a dead end, and that as every year goes by, the licence fee is more and more anachronistic. Yet the Corporation refuses to listen to friendly voices like Mr Ross, and we found out from John Whittingdale in Birmingham that it still refuses to countenance any alternative revenue raising mechanism.
The BBC is very adept at using licence fee payers’ money to lobby anyone who will listen (including you) that it could not survive without the licence fee. It will use every means at its disposal to ensure it protects its vested interest. It will try and shut down debate, and as it controls 70 per cent of all broadcast news it has a lot of power to do that.
In the last couple of years, we have been bombarded with stories from the BBC about the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’, but when was the last time the BBC reported stories about those getting criminal records for not paying their licence fee? You never hear a BBC presenter uttering the words, “It’s really unfair that the poorest in our society have to pay a tax to watch live television even though many of them hardly ever watch the BBC”. You occasionally hear the odd debate on the BBC about the licence fee, but they are very few and far between.
Instead, certainly for the next few weeks, expect to hear the new version of ‘God Only Knows’ being promoted and played across all BBC platforms. If you tune-in to any outlet you won’t be able to get away from it. If that doesn’t work for them, they can always turn to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.