The BBC needs to be accountable to taxpayers

By Darwin Friend, researcher

Since the foundation of the TaxPayers’ Alliance in 2004, we have fought against the wasting of taxpayers’ cash. Because the BBC’s funding comes directly from an unfair, compulsory tax on everyone with a TV set, that includes them. From £200,000 lost on unused taxis, trains and hotels to £6 million on threatening TV licence letters, we consistently seek to hold the BBC’s feet to fire over wasteful spending. In January 2020, we launched our Axe the Tax campaign to finally bring British broadcasting up to date and scrap the licence fee. If individuals want to support the BBC’s spending habits so be it, but it should via an optional subscription model rather than forcing hard-working taxpayers to hand their cash over.

Recently, news broke that the BBC show Holby City had donated fully working ventilators from the set to the NHS Nightingale hospital. This was, undoubtedly, a welcome act to support NHS staff tackling coronavirus. On the surface, it seems odd that the show withheld such vital medical equipment from the NHS for three weeks when ventilators were in short supply, especially given the show suspended filming on the 18th March. It has also raised questions as to why the BBC owned expensive high-tech kit for a TV soap? Next we’ll hear that the actors are actually real doctors and nurses. 

The BBC’s defenders have suggested that it is cheaper to buy real ventilators than create fake ones. If that’s the case, then the costs should be revealed to the public so they can judge if they were good value for money. This reflects a broader need for the BBC, which is spending taxpayer money, to be more accountable to them. We expect the government and local councils to be accountable - why not the state broadcaster?  

It is important to note that the BBC has made some positive moves in regard to transparency, most notably publishing remuneration figures for senior staff. While the figures are outrageous, with 110 earning over £150,000, the organisation should be applauded for releasing them. However, numerous exemptions are granted to the BBC by the Freedom of Information Act (2000), including material held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output. The Beeb should become more transparent about spending, so those who pay the salaries of executives can see what they spend it on.

Part of the reason the BBC’s spending lacks transparency is the nature of the licence fee-funded public service broadcasting system. It dominates the market thanks to its financing structure. BBC TV channels and catch-up services are by far the most viewed and, incredibly, over half of all radio listening is to BBC stations. Given that it is funded by what is practically a poll tax, we’re left with what seems like an unbreakable cycle: a taxpayer-funded media organisation which crushes a competitive market through its superior spending power. The size of this spending dissuades the organisation from being open about it, especially as it knows that the funders - taxpayers - are extremely averse to the unpopular tax that funds it! Our polling from last year supported this with 68 per cent of working class voters backing abolition of the licence fee. Transparency needs to be the first step if the BBC is ever to recover its reputation with the public - whatever future model it takes on.

This unwillingness to face the scrutiny of ordinary taxpayers is in keeping with the description of the BBC by the culture secretary , Oliver Dowden, who noted the BBC as holding “narrow views” and being “too urban” in its thinking. Licence fee payers are left picking up the cost for its output regardless.

Thankfully the tide is turning. Last year the number of licenses sold fell for the first time ever, with 37,000 fewer households purchasing one. Action is also being taken in Parliament with the Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Julian Knight having called for a change in the funding structure to a subscription service. Given that the technology already exists to do this (the BBC itself already requires registration to use its iPlayer), then why shouldn’t it be used? It would allow those who enjoy the content produced by the BBC to continue enjoying it while those who don’t would no longer be compelled to do so.






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