Thursday 20 January 2022

Funding the BBC


 Although Culture (sic) Secretary Nadine Dorries' announcement that the BBC's licence fee is to be frozen for the next two years and replaced by something else soon after. is clearly a part of the government's desperate attempt to distract us from the " Partygate" stew in which Prime Minister Johnson  is drowning, the bullying threat is not a new one. 

In the years since 2010, during which the Conservatives had been in power, the funding  for the BBC has been reduced in real terms by no less than 30% and there has been constant discussion of a replacement for the Licence Fee on the grounds that it is anachronistic  (receiving TV or Radio programmes is no longer dependent on the ownership of a television set or radio) and regressive (the poorest households pay the same flat rate as the richest households - this concern of the Tories for the plight of the poorest is touching).

 Whilst the above "technical inconsistencies" are true, the real reason behind the Tories' opposition to the BBC is probably two-fold:

 1.  The BBC's success  (its programmes win hands down over its commercial rivals in any "ratings" comparison) is an affront to the Tories' entrenched idealogical belief that the public provision of  goods and services is inefficient  and always inferior to private provision motivated by the profit motive and the so-called disciplines of the market.

2. The Tories' private sector backers, such as the Maxwell Empire, are anxious to get their profit-maximising  hands on it (ditto the NHS).

If you want "stick and lift"* then read Barwise and York, "The War Against the BBC" (Penguin Books, 2020).  

 The fair but adequate financing of public broadcasting is not just a problem in the UK, but affects all economies in which it exists. Accepting that  the licence fee may no longer be the most appropriate way of financing it Barwise and York examine some of the alternatives  (pages172 - 9):

A subscription service: The BBC would compete with the private sector (eg Skye, Netflix) on equal terms. This option was considered by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) Committee  in 2015 as offering no evidence that the BBC's public service and quality functions would be improved, or even maintained.

A household levy: This was the DCMS Committee's preferred option.  It would apply to all households regardless of whether they owned a TV or radio set or had access to  the Nett. There could be exemptions for student households, second homes  and certain social security recipients.  It is a bit hard on the tiny fraction of households in which no one genuinely ever uses a radio or television, but these must be very few indeed. It is the system used in Germany, will be introduced in Ireland in 2024, and in France the levy is collected along with their equivalent of Council Tax.  If this were adopted in the UK it could be varied according to the Council Tax band, thus making the levy more progressive.

An earmarked tax: This could be an additional sales tax on any equipment capable of receiving or enhancing broadcasting in any of its forms.

An additional electricity taxGiven the crisis of fuel prices at the moment politicians would perhaps be wise to put this one on the back burner, but it is attractive in that since richer households probably use more electricity this would make the levy more progressive.

There is a very detailed parliamentary report on all the options which can be read here: 

 I've only skimmed through it (the printing is very small) but the writers do warn that whatever change  is proposed will produce snags, some expected, perhaps some surprises.  This could be a case for adopting Chesterton's Fence (as raised by Anonymous in  a comment to a previous post).  

Tory politicians might consider it best to leave well alone, as there may be a parallel here with the rates. These were mired with anomalies but had existed since the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 and  we had got used to paying them.  Mrs Thatcher's determination to abolish them and  introduce the Poll Tax  led to riots and her defenestration.

*"Stick and lift" is a phrase used such as my grandmother's generation (born 1870) to mean "all the gory details."  It is not in Brewer's "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" so may have been peculiar to Yorkshire, or even just this bit of the West Riding.


  1. I like the household levy.That electricity tax could also be used ,in addition, as an extra tax on those who earn more than £100,000.THe BBC and ITV already have a subscription system BRITBOX

  2. Thanks for your comment. At £5.99 a month Britbox seems very good value though I find it hard to keep up with the current output; never mind "catching up."


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