The TV Licence Fee is unjustifiable. It has to go
BY TOBY YOUNG
As a thought experiment, let’s imagine that Labour wins the next General Election. In fairly short order, many British companies start going out of business, including Hovis Ltd.
So Jeremy Corbyn decides to take it into public ownership. But the Labour apparatchiks in Whitehall know nothing about running a business – shock! – and Hovis quickly starts losing a great deal of money.
Then John McDonnell comes up with a brainwave: Why not impose a toaster tax? Henceforth, anyone who owns a toaster will have to pay an annual fee of £154.50 and the money this raises will then be spent on subsidizing Hovis.
Doesn’t matter if you would no more dream of putting a slice of Hovis in your toaster than a piece of cardboard – you still have to fork out £154.50 a year. If you refuse, it’ll be off to the Scrubs with you, where, if you’re lucky, you can join Rod Liddle, Douglas Murray and me in the journalists’ wing.
Sounds crazy, right? Even in a crackpot socialist dystopia, with inflation running at 1,698,488% (the actual inflation rate in Venezuela in 2018) people would still balk at a toaster tax.
“Why should I have to pay a tax to subsidize Hovis when I don’t even like Hovis?” they would ask. “If not enough people want to buy Hovis, why not let the business go under? Why force everyone to prop it up on pain of imprisonment?”
Substitute the TV licence fee for the toaster tax and the BBC for Hovis and you have exactly the situation we find ourselves in today – under a Conservative Government! If you own a television set, you have to pay an annual tax of £154.50, 90% of which goes to the BBC. Doesn’t matter if you never watch a BBC channel and have no intention of ever doing so, you still have to pay the tax.
To give you an idea of just how unfair this is, take the new BBC Scotland channel, launched with great fanfare last February with an annual budget of £32 million. A decent chunk of that is spent on The Nine, an hour-long, nightly news programme of the kind that BBC executives think the Scottish people really ought to watch so they can form the ‘correct’ views about subjects like immigration and the EU.
Unfortunately, only about 4,000 people tune in, which, incredibly, is even fewer than watch Alex Salmond’s weekly chat show on Russia Today. But that’s more viewers that tune in to The Seven, BBC Scotland’s nightly news show at 7pm, which is watched by no one – literally no one. The Seven is one of 21 programmes on the new channel that at certain points between 24th February and 2nd June had zero viewers according to the British Audience Research Board.
That’s quite an achievement, given that Scotland has a population of five-and-a-half million and the average viewer spends three hours and 46 minutes a day watching television, the highest of all the nations that make up the UK.
Yet everyone in Scotland who owns a television set still has to pay the licence fee. That is, they are forced to pay for programmes that literally no one watches.
Surely, we should scrap this regressive tax? The BBC should compete in the open market, alongside commercial rivals like Sky, Netflix and Amazon Prime. If people want its services, they will pay for them; if they don’t, they shouldn’t be forced to do so.
We know that the BBC is perfectly capable of doing this as it has a very successful commercial arm – BBC Studios – that brings in over £1 billion a year, £200 million of which is profit. If it went head-to-head with subscription-channels in the global marketplace I’m sure it would do very well, such is the BBC’s brand recognition.
The lion’s share of the BBC should be privatised, but I’m not totally opposed to its news and current affairs division remaining in public ownership and being paid for out of general taxation, provided it eliminates its well-documented liberal bias.
Although ITN and Sky News do a decent job of keeping the general public informed without being subsidised by the taxpayer, so you’d need to make a good argument as to why BBC News couldn’t do likewise.
Nonetheless, I wouldn’t die in a ditch if the BBC wanted to keep, say, one per cent of its annual budget and pay for it by charging taxpayers £1.54p a year. But it can pay for Strictly Come Dancing without dipping into my pocket, thank you very much.
The BBC’s current charter runs until 2027, at which point it is up to the government of the day whether to renew it and on what terms. That is the point to abolish the license fee.
Apart from everything else, it would be a fitting punishment for the BBC’s decision to renege on the deal it struck with the government in 2015 whereby, in return for having its charter renewed and being allowed to increase the license fee, it promised to take on the cost of providing the over-75s with free TV licenses
There is no ‘cost’ in reality, just license fee revenue the BBC would have to forego. But it has refused to do so. Can’t afford it, says the Beeb. Well, why not make things simpler? Instead of providing free TV licenses to the over-75s, the BBC can effectively provide free TV licenses to everyone from 2027 onwards, i.e., stop charging people for the privilege of owning a television set.
We’d just better hope that Corbyn isn’t in Number 10 at that point – although he’ll be 78 by then so will have a vested interest in making the Beeb help out pensioners. No doubt he’ll renew the BBC’s charter and allow it to keep on hiking up the license fee every year provided it churns out anti-Tory propaganda 24/7. In other words, carry on as you were.
Toby Young is a broadcaster, writer and journalist. Follow him on twitter: @toadmeister