Published:

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Nadine Dorries’ announcement of a two-year freeze in the licence fee – while hinting the Government will force a subscription model on the BBC in the longer-term – suggests the Government believes serious reform of the BBC could be electorally popular. Is the Government right about this?

Let’s look at the licence fee to begin with. I last researched the licence fee in an autumn poll on living standards for the TPA. It revealed the following:

(a) The TV licence was named the second least fair tax from a range of options, marginally below inheritance tax. It was seen as the least fair tax amongst 18-24 year olds, women, working class voters and Leave voters (not your classic mix).

(b) On the flip side, just eight per cent thought the licence fee was one of the fairest taxes, compared to, say, 26 per cent who named alcohol and tobacco duties as fair.

(c) Given a list of taxes the Government could raise to pay off Covid debts, the TV licence was joint-bottom, along with council tax.

(d) Given a list of taxes the Government could cut after Covid debt had been reduced, the TV licence was mid-table: below income tax, council tax, NICs and VAT; but above several others.

(e) Incidentally, just seven per cent thought the TV Licence brought in a lot of revenue for Government.

This is just a handful of datapoints from one poll, but others have shown the same results over the last few years. Despite the limited scope of the change – a temporary freeze, not a cut – this should be a popular move.

It’s strange that senior BBC execs have expressed surprise at the freeze. The polling – coupled with fractious relations between the Government and BBC – meant this was on the cards for two years. The BBC has always been confident that support for a licence fee cut would erode as people considered the content that might be lost. We’ll see; maybe the polls will shift a little.

However, a big shift is unlikely: while a minority of people will change their minds as they consider things properly, most won’t give this a second’s thought – and vast numbers will be far more focused on their disposable income. Irrational or not, the licence fee is disproportionately hated because, like council tax (and to some extent, inheritance tax), people effectively write a cheque for the money – which drives them crazy.

Another reason why support for the freeze is unlikely to flip is the recent coverage about what BBC stars – from both entertainment and news – are paid. In a time of falling living standards, it won’t be credible to plead poverty while paying vast sums to so many people.

It isn’t yet clear if the Government will open a broader front and force a debate on the entire model of BBC funding in the short-term. Despite the build up at the weekend, when it came to it in Parliament yesterday Dorries only vaguely hinted at it.

The popularity of such a fundamental reform is far from assured, but nor is it inconceivable. However, if the Government is serious about genuinely changing the BBC’s funding model, the one way to lose the debate is to focus on apparent “BBC bias”. It was a mistake for Dorries to have made this point so high up in her statement. Almost no one truly believes the BBC is riddled with bias and it makes politicians sound weird when they assert it.

The Government will be on much surer ground if it justifies change on the basis of changing social habits. Dorries did prepare the ground for this yesterday and this was the most persuasive part of her statement. As I wrote here almost exactly two years ago, apathy towards the BBC is increasing. Very large numbers of people just don’t see the point in the BBC because they rely on other platforms like YouTube, Netflix, Prime, Apple TV and all the rest. This is certainly true of entertainment, but it’s also true of news; huge numbers of people pick up news in snippets, from a range of sources, all accessed via social media. Fewer and fewer people seek out news on dedicated platforms.

Despite this, it is here, in this more fundamental debate, where the BBC’s defence is more powerful. Far more people will be persuaded about their warnings of the impact of other methods of funding – which will make people ask whether the country would be better with the BBC (or BBC News, at least) in roughly the same form than it would be without it. Large numbers of people still rely on the BBC News website and on the main bulletins. Broadcast news is dwindling, but it surely has a medium-term future.

Coming back to the original question: is the Government right to assume that clipping the BBC’s wings is popular. In terms of freezing the licence fee? Yes, definitely, unless they completely mess up the communications. In terms of more fundamental change? It’s hard to see what the Government would gain from forcing the debate now; better to just wait to see where things are in a few years. They should certainly avoid boring everyone to death about what lefties the BBC are. No one cares.