Andrew Allison is the Campaign Manager of the Freedom Association, which runs the Axe the TV Tax campaign.
We have been waiting a long time for the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, chaired by the respected John Whittingdale, to publish its findings on the future of the BBC. However, today the wait is over.
For those of us who would like the future of the BBC secured by subscription rather than a licence fee, there is both good news and bad news. The report says that the “principle of the licence fee in its current form is becoming harder to sustain given the changes in communication and media technology and changing audience needs and behaviours.” So far, so good; however, what the committee proposes is, in the short term, introducing controls on iPlayer to restrict access to those who have a TV licence, and in the long term a Broadcasting Levy, similar to the “Rundfunkbeitrag” introduced in Germany in 2013.
A Broadcasting Levy would be paid by every household irrespective of whether or not its members watch television. The committee has recommended this in part because it favours decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, and whilst I understand that an organisation the size of the BBC cannot have a sudden reduction in income with no real way of plugging the shortfall, I do not accept that this levy (or tax) is the way forward.
Those who say that decriminalising non-payment could lead to a sudden reduction in income for the BBC are wrong, for one main reason. Making non-payment a civil offence carries with it the threat of a County Court Judgment (CCJ). Having a CCJ against your name seriously affects your ability to obtain credit. No-one plays fast and loose with their credit rating. People get CCJs against their name because they experience financial problems – the very same people who find it difficult to pay the licence fee and who currently end up in a Magistrates’ Court.
Although support for the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee is welcome, in the long term, it is meaningless if a new Broadcasting Levy is introduced. If you fail to pay your Council Tax bill, you will be dragged in front of the Magistrates’ Court. You could get a criminal record, and could be sent to prison for up to 90 days. Wouldn’t the same apply if you failed to pay a Broadcasting Levy for your household?
Although the committee feels that there is an opportunity for some form of subscription in the future, it does not see the future of the BBC completely funded through subscription. This was highlighted by the amendment proposed by Philip Davies, and rejected by all other members of the committee.
In many ways a Broadcasting Levy is worse than the licence fee. At least with the licence fee you don’t have to pay if you don’t watch live television. Although it is unclear in the report how a Broadcasting Levy would be collected, my hunch is that it will be collected by councils as part of a household’s Council Tax bill. Under the German system, those in receipt of certain welfare benefits can apply for exemption from the fee. I cannot support a proposal that thinks someone’s regular dose of EastEnders is worth paying for through the benefits system, and that those who do not watch any television should subsidise it.
The committee feels that public service broadcasting should be available to as many as possible, so why not fund that through general taxation? Surely that is a less bureaucratic way of doing it? The committee looked at the Dutch model (where despite assurances that funding would not be cut, it subsequently was) and decided that it was an inferior model. That is a risk you take; however, we do live in a democracy and if sufficient numbers of people feel that funding for public service broadcasting should be increased, politicians will be forced to listen to them.
Last year, on the BBC’s Daily Politics, Nick Ross, the former Crimewatch presenter, said that the future of the BBC can be secured by introducing a subscription service and that risk aversion was driving the BBC into a dead end. He also said this:
“The licence fee, when it comes up for renewal in two years’ time, will be 90 years old, and as every year goes by, it becomes more and more anachronistic.”
As a private company, the BBC could change and adapt freely. It would not have to answer to licence fee payers for every pound of spending. It would not have to appear before committees of MPs to justify itself. If would be free, in the same way as every other private company is free, to tailor output and viewing packages to its customers.
As more people access content through smartphones, tablets, computers, and smart TVs, it is very disappointing that this report recommends the BBC’s funding is changed from one anachronistic system to another. We know the management at the BBC is averse to change, and now we know that the current members of the CMS Committee (or at least a majority of them) are, too.