TOPIC GUIDE: The BBC
"The television licence fee should be abolished"
PUBLISHED: 28 Aug 2015
AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng
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In May 2016, the Royal Charter, which sets the remit and cost of the BBC [Ref: BBC], was renewed to much fanfare, keeping in place the licence fee, and how the BBC is funded more broadly [Ref: BBC News]. Despite these recent developments, debate surrounding the purpose and necessity of a public service broadcaster funded through a licence fee in the 21st century, still remains. In a changing digital landscape, and amid spending imperatives from government, some question the idea of a mandatory licence fee, and in August 2015 Justice Secretary Michael Gove called for the non-payment of the licence fee to be decriminalised [Ref: Express], further adding to the pressure on the BBC to justify its current funding arrangements. However, for supporters the BBC represents the best in public service broadcasting, an institution to be proud of, the “envy” of broadcasters around the world [Ref: Independent], and its current funding method - the annual £145.50 licence fee - should be seen as a form of public good, like “museums, hospitals, arts organisations and universities.” [Ref: Guardian] But Critics point to the fact that the licence fee gives the BBC an unfair advantage over its commercial competitors – with an editorial in The Times bemoaning the fact that: “It competes on blatantly unequal terms with local and online outlets – spending more than £4 billion worth of licence fees with no clear boundaries to its remit” [Ref: The Times]. The debate polarises opinion, and questions about the nature of public service broadcasting [Ref: Ofcom], together with issues surrounding a television tax in an age of Netflix, Amazon and other ‘on demand’ providers, mean that the future of the BBC and its place in British society is contested. Is it unfair that the BBC is able to levy its own mandatory tax on all television users? Should it have to compete on the same footing as commercial providers? Or is the licence fee a symbol of a shared, collective public good, distinct from other broadcasters, and independent of government? Should we abolish the television licence fee?
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The BBC DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
Inform, educate, or entertain - What are we paying for?
John Reith, the first Director General of the BBC, from its inception in 1922 until 1938, felt that public broadcasting had the effect of creating a “culturally unifying ideology” which lifted the nation as a whole [Ref: Guardian]. Implicit to this understanding was that the BBC would serve as a cultural beacon – universal, and accessible to anybody and everybody, from the wealthiest to the poorest. As such, universality is a vital concept for supporters of the licence fee, as Director of Policy at the BBC James Heath argues, “the social and cultural value of the BBC comes from its universal availability, as well as the range and breadth of (its) output.” [Ref: BBC] He goes on to state that the BBC is unique in its ability to work towards a common good, and claims that, “everyone wins from paying the licence fee because everyone pays it. The licence fee is a form of shared investment, akin to the pooling of health risks for mutual security.” [Ref: BBC] Furthermore, for some, the most powerful reason why the licence fee is necessary is that: “It ensures that it is the British people who pay for the BBC, and not the government” meaning that BBC retains in a unique position in which it is independent and, crucially, free from political control [Ref: BBC]. This point of view is challenged by opponents, who cite recent admissions of political bias at the BBC from former high ranking members of staff [Ref: The Times], as well as suggesting that the BBC no longer knows what or who it is for. The Telegraph, for example, notes that whilst some of the output, such as Radio 4, are truly enriching, “some of the contemporary output fails to be distinctive, and could easily be produced by a commercial organisation without a charge to the viewer”, concluding that: “The BBC needs to go back to the drawing board and think carefully about what it is for.” [Ref: Telegraph] Furthermore, the recent furore regarding whether the BBC should keep its Good Food website, was indicative to some of the lack of clarity about what it is there for - with Journalist Christina Patterson noting that: “It isn’t there to publish recipes you can find in other places. It isn’t there to produce ‘lifestyle content’, you can find in newspapers or magazines. And it certainly isn’t there to crush commercial rivals with public cash.” [Ref: Guardian]
An unfair advantage?
Critics of the licence fee assert that mandatory funding means the BBC has the ability to unfairly dominate all forms of media. Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, argues that as a result, “the BBC is simply too powerful. Well over half the UK population consumes its news primarily from the BBC”, and warns that: “This is a dangerous concentration of influence” [Ref: The Times]. Others suggest that the fact that the BBC doesn’t need to generate profit in the way that commercial organisations do has a negative effect on free speech, and the plurality of the media, because: “Having an overwhelmingly dominant state funded news organisation, is inimical to the genuine and robust diversity of views on which a true democracy depends.” [Ref: The Times] Responding to these claims, those in favour of the licence fee make the point that having a public broadcaster which doesn’t have to worry about profit and has a steady revenue stream means that: “The BBC has the space to be distinctive” and produce challenging and ground breaking content, which actually results in a more diverse media landscape [Ref: BBC]. Moreover: “Thanks to the licence fee, (the BBC) produces content of a quality and breadth that the commercial sector could never hope to match” [Ref: New Statesman], and at 40p per household per day we receive 8 network television channels, 10 radio channels as well as online access, which supporters claim is unrivalled value for money [Ref: BBC]. Opponents though retort that if the BBC was really that confident with its content, it would compete for audiences like other broadcasters, noting that: “The trouble is that nothing is a bargain when you have no choice but to buy it.” [Ref: Telegraph]
What next? The BBC and the digital revolution
Aside from considerations of content and purpose, there are also arguments regarding the practicalities of a licence fee in the digital age. “Now (that) television is no longer our central cultural stage”, argues author Edward Lucas, and new and innovative broadcasting mediums are available - such as original online content via Netflix or Amazon, as well as catch up television (for which you do not need a television licence) - there is no good reason for the licence fee [Ref: The Times]. Others focus on the cost of the fee, describing it as, “regressive and archaic” [Ref: The Times] because it is a heavy burden on lower income families, due to the fact that, “it is a flat rate charge” which “takes no account of people’s income or wealth” [Ref: Telegraph]. Alternative suggestions to fund the BBC have been mooted, such as a flat rate tax on all households whether they use a television or not, as happens in Germany, or a more radical subscription service in which viewers would only pay for the content which they want [Ref: BBC News]. Journalist Allister Heath favours a subscription model in which users would have access to television and online content, and argues that abolishing the licence fee is positive because it would allow the BBC to compete internationally, eventually seeing it, “reinvent content for the digital age and conquering the world.” [Ref: Telegraph] However, some commentators are critical of these arguments, and claim that whilst it does need modernising, the licence fee ensures that the BBC stays true to its public broadcasting remit, rather than chasing commercial revenue [Ref: Forbes]. And despite the fact that: “Choice busts out of every new provider – Amazon, Netflix, and many more to come – the BBC at £12 a month dominates the British airwaves” [Ref: Guardian], an indication of the enduring quality the licence fee provides. So where does the balance lie - is the licence fee the guarantor of independent, quality broadcasting for all? Or is it an unfair, archaic tax, out of step with the new media landscape?
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Edward Lucas The Times 18 August 2015
Allister Heath Telegraph 15 August 2015
Telegraph 17 July 2015
The Times 26 February 2015
Polly Toynbee Guardian 30 June 2015
Ben Bradshaw New Statesman 4 March 2015
James Heath BBC 14 July 2014
Charlotte Higgins Guardian 1 July 2014
Rona Fairhead Independent 17 August 2015
Charlotte Higgins Guardian 15 April 2014
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Christina Patterson Guardian 19 May 2016
The Times 13 May 2016
Guardian 12 May 2016
Clare Foges The Times 9 May 2016
Neil Midgley Forbes 24 July 2015
Stefan Collini Guardian 19 July 2015
Financial Times 16 July 2015
Chris Bryant Independent 16 July 2015
Evening Standard 14 July 2015
Charlotte Higgins Guardian 14 July 2015
New Statesman 9 July 2015
The Times 7 July 2015
Guardian 1 July 2015
Ed Williams The Times 17 May 2015
Jeremy Warner Telegraph 12 May 2015
Telegraph 12 May 2015
Nigel Dodds The Times 24 April 2015
David Epstein Telegraph 2 March 2015
Christina Odone Telegraph 26 February 2015
James Heath BBC 15 July 2014
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
BBC News 12 May 2016
The Times 12 May 2016
The Times 5 May 2016
Telegraph 23 August 2015
Express 16 August 2015
The Times 17 July 2015
Guardian 6 July 2015
The Times 22 June 2015
Telegraph 19 June 2015
Guardian 15 June 2015
Guardian 5 June 2015
BBC News 26 February 2015
Independent 26 February 2015
Telegraph 4 July 2014
BBC Radio 4 15 July 2015
BBC Radio 4 13 October 2012
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