On Friday, backbencher Christopher Chope had the Second Reading of his Broadcasting (Television Licence Fee Abolition) Bill. He explained:
"This debate is about abolishing the television licence fee, which is more accurately described as the television tax. It is not about abolishing the BBC. One can be a friend of the BBC—as I am—without being a supporter of the licence fee, although the lengths to which the BBC sometimes goes to defend the licence fee often create enemies."
His effort, inevitably for now, failed. It was opposed by Shadow Arts Minister Ed Vaizey, who said:
"I want to put it on record that I am a firm supporter of the licence fee, as is the Conservative party. Nevertheless, no one should be afraid to rehearse the arguments about whether the licence fee is the best funding mechanism."
Mr Chope quoted former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke, who said the licence fee has:
“always been an unfair tax—the rich pay the same as the poor—and…it will be increasingly difficult for the BBC to collect the amount they collect now. In the age of internet TV, how can you insist people continue to pay a licence fee? A licence fee for what? Already you don’t need to pay the licence fee to watch most of the BBC’s programmes if you watch them on your computer via the iPlayer”.
Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, has called on the Conservatives to support a BBC focussed on programming that commercial broadcasters will not provide, and said the BBC’s monopoly over money provided for public service broadcasting should be broken. Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt appears open to this suggestion.
It is worth questioning the extent to which the way a television company is funded affects its ability to provide public service broadcasting (Channel Four has some outstanding documentaries). It is also worth questioning the whole concept of public service broadcasting – does it mean more than worthy programmes that not many people want to watch? Given that we do not try to compel people to watch such programmes, should we compel them to pay for them? Is it right that television viewers should subsidise radio listeners? What effect might a new funding regime have on the BBC’s political bias?
Over to you. But before you comment, have a look at this clip of an impassioned speech from Stephen Fry in defence of the licence free. Whatever our views (and Tom Greeves, the author of this post, is in favour of replacing the licence fee with voluntary subscription), it’s well worth seeing.