A broadband tax won’t save the BBC

By Joe Ventre, digital campaign manager


Last month, the debate over the licence fee and the future of the BBC reared its head once again, following reports that a formal review of Auntie’s funding model would be announced this autumn. These reports surfaced only a week after the release of the BBC’s latest statement of accounts, which revealed (amidst eye-watering star and executive salaries) that a staggering 500,000 people had stopped paying for a TV licence.


As significant a figure as it is, it’s hardly surprising. In a world where a plethora of on-demand video content is available, whether it’s in a plush home cinema or on a humble mobile phone, the ability to simply slap a levy on the old household telly and reap the rewards is falling apart. Our Axe the Tax campaign had been warning of this trend for years, and though the government has been slow to catch the drift, it appears that the chickens are finally coming home to roost. Logistically, the problem facing the Beeb was well summarised in a piece of written evidence presented to the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee inquiry into BBC future funding in March 2022:


“The present Licence arrangement is anachronistic and fundamentally unsustainable, as the migration of audiences away from linear viewing provides a double-hit to the BBC's resources - affecting both revenue and the cost of enforcement.”


Essentially, the licence fee model has the BBC caught in a death spiral.


To be clear, even if the BBC was still thriving from the levy, the licence fee would still be deeply objectionable. Under the current model, the BBC is allowed to compete in the commercial market and fill the pockets of celebs and execs using revenue generated from a tax on TV ownership - a muddled and archaic concept that should be consigned to the past. It is these fundamental principles that make the concept of a broadband tax - a solution recently touted by former BBC chairman Richard Sharp - all the more galling. The TV licence in the current context is a spurious levy, but even it seems reasonable when compared to a tax on your internet connection.


Finding another utility to tax simply won’t do. The TV tax already faces deep opposition from the general public, and this desperate shifting of goalposts is unlikely to win over hearts and minds. Opposition to the levy would likely quickly spill over to the BBC if such a punitive reform were to be implemented.


So what should be done? After all, it’s much easier to call for something to be scrapped, and always more complicated to devise what replaces it. Our proposals for reform, dating back to October 2021, would see core BBC services (such as BBC News, BBC World Service, BBC Parliament) slimlined, refined, and funded through direct government grants - at a much cheaper direct cost to taxpayers. This would also be a fairer funding model, replacing the current, regressive flat rate. The many popular programming elements of BBC would then be privatised, generating significant revenue for the public purse and expanding the commercial sector with high-value content and fair competition. This is a compromise solution which, as I recently explained on a BBC radio station, would be a win-win for both taxpayers and the BBC.


One thing is for certain - the status quo cannot continue. The bell is tolling for the licence fee, and the end of the current BBC Charter is fast approaching. After years of TPA campaigning, the government appears to have finally realised that reform is unavoidable, and with the formal review soon to be announced, we will be campaigning to ensure that the TV tax isn’t allowed to survive in disguise. A part privatised BBC remains the best way to axe the TX tax once and for all.

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