It's time to switch off the Licence Fee

The Licence Fee “is becoming harder and harder to justify and sustain.”

That’s the verdict of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, in a landmark report on the future of the BBC released yesterday.

With drastic technological change and the increasingly diverse ways in which people watch the media, the Licence Fee looks increasingly outdated. The BBC, for their part, has responded by agreeing that the £145 a year TV Tax needs modernising. The BBC’s £295,000-a-year Director of Strategy James Purnell believes that the Licence Fee now needs to extend to catch-up services like BBC iPlayer, as opposed to just the live output as is the case now.

You read that right – the BBC’s response to the Licence Fee being criticised by a Parliamentary Committee is to levy more people with it.

The Committee, for their part, suggested that as the Licence Fee model now looks out of date it could potentially be replaced by the German system, which sees a compulsory levy on all households – removing the need for prosecutions of those who evade it – as a ‘formal’ TV Tax.

To be polite, both ideas rather drastically miss the point.

The Licence Fee isn’t just outdated because of changing technology but because of the entrance of hundreds of competing broadcast outlets. That’s not just the BskyB and ITVs of the world, but the numerous specialised channels all competing for our attention.

Amidst all of this, the BBC acts like a schoolyard bully, immune from detention because it owns the school. Subsidised by millions of hard-pressed taxpayers, the BBC has branched into local and hyper-local coverage that has squeezed out other commercial players. In a particularly stinging part of the report, the Committee essentially tell the BBC to butt out of things that aren’t core to its work – in essence, to stick to its knitting. We’d agree.

But in the long-term, there’s no requirement for a Licence Fee at all. If Sky, ITV and hundreds of other channels can survive on their own two feet and produce quality programming, it’s ludicrous for the BBC to fund ever-more mind-numbing reality shows about dancing celebrities. It’s not just a question of personal choice, but of the fundamental workings of a free market.

Let taxpayers decide what they want to watch, and what they want to pay for it.