Enough is enough. It’s time to axe the TV tax

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“Thanks to the unique way the BBC is funded.”

That phrase used to be ubiquitous, with the BBC rolling it out as a reliable way of knocking any criticism of the licence fee on the head. The idea was that a direct payment to the BBC gave certainty and security to an institution that had a duty to provide public service broadcasting and not simply chase ratings. This was seen as preferable to funding from general taxation, which would be overly reliant on the largesse of the Government of the day and thus might compromise the BBC’s independence and undermine long-term planning, or having to pursue advertising money.

In today’s world the justification no longer holds any water. Forty years ago we had to choose from just three channels and two of them were the BBC. In a 3, 4 or 5 channel world it was pretty much inconceivable that anyone who watched some television might not watch the BBC. We are a long way from that world now. We are very much used to the idea of multiple channels.

Last year the BBC itself admitted that 16 to 24 year-olds spend more time watching Netflix than they do watching all BBC TV channels combined, including BBC iPlayer. In short, the BBC is becoming increasingly irrelevant to young people. And that means big trouble for the future of the licence fee.

Imagine telling someone that in order to have the right to watch YouTube, they would have to subscribe to Netflix:

“So if I watch one video of a cat falling over then I need to pay £5.99 for a month of Netflix?”

“Yes. Netflix is very good.”

“I’m sure it is, but I don’t plan on watching it.”

“But Netflix has Daredevil, Stranger Things, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and many more.”

“I’m sure it does, but I don’t really watch tv series. I’d only want to watch sport. Is there any sport on Netflix?”

“Well, no. For sports you probably want Sky Sports. Or BT Sport.”

“So could I pay for one of those instead of Netflix?”

“You can pay for them as well as Netflix.”

“Okay. Let me get this straight. Even if I never watch a second of Netflix, I still need to pay for it if I want to watch any other tv?”

“Exactly. I’m so glad you understand.”

A conversation like that would sound utterly ridiculous, but that’s almost the exact situation with the BBC. You might never watch the BBC, but if you watch any other UK tv channel then you’ll need to pay the licence fee. Frankly it’s unsustainable – and I haven’t even touched on politics.

In 2007 the BBC’s former Political Editor and Sunday morning stalwart Andrew Marr, pushing back against the view that the BBC had a left-wing bias, claimed the BBC had “an innate liberal agenda”. Twelve years later, you really don’t need to watch much of it to see the truth of that statement. Take, for example, the phrase “crashing out” that is inevitably used to describe leaving the EU without a deal. I suspect that many of those who work at the BBC don’t realise that they’re too often guilty of unconscious bias. Nevertheless, if you’re funding relies on a system under which everybody who wishes to watch any tv has to pay £154.50 to fund you on threat of imprisonment then failing to represent millions of licence fee payers is a huge problem.

And it is on threat of imprisonment. 13% of all magistrates’ court cases concern people who haven’t paid their licence fee. Yet again, this is not a sensible or sustainable position. Imprisoning your customers for failing to pay for a service that they may well not have used is not the basis for building a contented client base. Nor is paying astronomical wages to those who would struggle to earn a commensurate salary in the private sector.

So what should the BBC do instead?

I’d argue it’s past time the BBC became a subscription service. They could start charging at the same level as the licence fee: £154.50 a year. The difference would be that only those who wanted to receive the relevant channels would be obliged to pay. Would people voluntarily pay just under £13 a month for the BBC? I suspect the vast majority would – even at more than twice the cost of Netflix. However I also suspect that that simple switch would force the BBC to reform in a way that a thousand Government dictats would fail to achieve.

The BBC would start with a great many advantages. First, it has an enormous back catalogue, to which it would retain all the rights. If it chose to charge separately for iPlayer – or to radically increase the number of old programmes on iPlayer to improve the value of that £13 a month charge – this would immediately give it a massive advantage over other subscription models. Secondly it has millions of customers who would be primed to continue to pay a subscription just as they pay a licence fee. For millions nothing would change. Nevertheless the power of the market would force the BBC to better respond to its customers’ desires. Ultimately therefore we would all benefit, thanks to the less than unique way the BBC would be funded.

Susan Hall is a London Assembly Member and Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group. Follow her on twitter: @Councillorsuzie

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