Scrap the Licence Fee, Save the BBC



Much has been written about the flaws of the licence fee, including by me on this site last August and what might replace it. The Conservative Party’s Manifesto promised to decriminalise the licence fee. This will mean that no one is sent to prison for failing to pay their tv license and 13% of all magistrates’ court cases can be deleted.

However it is clear that the Government plans to go further and abolish the licence fee. And, as soon as this became clear, forces on both sides started to man the barricades. The BBC released a graphic showing all the very many things they do that they didn’t do 25 years ago (a great many of which that really don’t fit the definition of public service broadcasting) and started inviting less than neutral commentators onto Newsnight to tell the viewing public why the licence fee was so important. They might as well have just replayed this John Cleese-fronted advert from 1986.

Meanwhile others argued that the BBC should be cut down to size, with a Number 10 source telling the Sunday Times “We are having a consultation and we will whack it… They’ve got hundreds of radio stations, they’ve got all these TV stations and a massive website. The whole thing needs massive pruning back.” Both sides should calm down.

74% of the public support the licence fee being scrapped. The numbers in favour of a wholesale dismantling of the BBC will be an awful lot lower and a Government that tried would be making an utterly ridiculous mistake. Meanwhile it is entirely in the interests of the BBC for it to recognise that the licence fee is on borrowed time. Indeed, if the licence fee were to be abolished then this will not happen before 2027, when the current charter period runs out. The next Director General should accept that the licence fee is going and focus on what comes next.

Part of that job will involve a willingness to frankly assess where the BBC is going wrong. It has been notable that BBC figures seeking to defend the licence fee have tried to do so by asserting that the BBC is unimpeachably great. This is an error for two reasons. First, if the BBC is so great then it won’t struggle to survive without the safety net of a licence fee. Secondly, although the BBC continues to make a great many popular and critically acclaimed programmes, it is clear that it has also lost its way. The pretence that the BBC is absolutely fine and just needs to be guaranteed funding in perpetuity risks blinding it to the need for reform. In so doing it will alienate more and more members of the viewing public.

Instead of offering up bleeding stumps and simply asserting that any changes to its funding settlement will lead to the scrapping of CBeebies or The Archers, the BBC should think carefully about what it’s doing right and where it’s going wrong. Too often there appears to be confusion about what the BBC is for and how it should distinguish itself from commercial channels. Chasing ratings by producing programmes that could easily have been made or shown by ITV – the decision to pay £25 million for two series of The Voice was a notable example – simply diminishes any idea that the BBC is special or different. And yet would any other channel have taken the risk of creating Doctor Who or Strictly Come Dancing or The Great British Bake Off? 

When the licence fee disappears the BBC will have to become more sensitive to the needs of its viewers. It will have to consider more carefully whether it is right to have thirteen journalists covering the US Primaries and learn that there is no nobility to wasting taxpayer or licence payers’ money. Doing so will improve the service it offers. I predict that most Brits will be happy to pay for the BBC. It shouldn’t take too much ingenuity to recognise that many people around the globe would pay for the BBC too. But they shouldn’t have to pay if they don’t want to watch. The BBC shouldn’t be afraid to learn that free market lesson. The end of the licence fee shouldn’t mean the end of the BBC. It should be it’s salvation.

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