By Sam Packer, media campaign manager
In February, the government launched a consultation on decriminalising the BBC licence fee. Given the crux of our Axe the Tax campaign - that it’s preposterous that people are compelled to pay a tax on pain of imprisonment in order to fund something they may not want or use - we are strongly supportive of the proposal. It’s not a silver bullet solution, but removing the current criminal sanctions would be an improvement. As a potential criminal offence, non-payment of the licence fee is both too punitive for those who do not pay and burdensome to taxpayers, especially those on the lowest incomes. That’s why we launched a handy tool to help others submit to the consultation.
But what are the BBC themselves saying? We know that a campaign to abolish the licence fee will not be easy. The BBC are bound to defend their privileged position. They will rely on allies to make their case, and in February several Conservative MPs did exactly that in response to rumours that the tv tax’s future could be in doubt. But to best understand the BBC’s view, we ought to look directly at their response to the consultation.
The most striking and reported aspect of the BBC’s response was two paragraphs at the end of the submission - points 203 and 204. These paragraphs bring up the idea that in the future the UK could follow other countries in transitioning the licence fee into some form of broadband tax. Unsurprisingly, we vehemently oppose any such tax. As soon as the BBC’s submission was published, our political director responded:
"Not only would it be wrong to have to pay the BBC protection money to watch Netflix, a broadband tax would also be terrible for smaller providers, whack up prices and drive poorer people offline.
"Ministers should take this as recognition that the licence fee is simply not fit for the 21st century, and that a decriminalisation of the TV tax should be the first step to future reforms."
The inclusion of the broadband tax suggestion, even as a supposed afterthought, is revealing. Firstly, it shows that for all that their submission focused on the value of the compulsory licence fee as aiding the “universality” of the BBC, the real reason the beeb loves the licence fee is the guaranteed revenue it provides them. We’ve touched on why this guarantee is actually a massive problem, as it reduces their accountability to the viewing public and results in poorer quality content.
Secondly, and this is good news, it shows that the BBC believe that the licence fee is under the greatest scrutiny in its history. Even they can recognise the status quo will not hold. They are not “advocating” for a broadband tax, but they do think it’s worth making the government aware of the option as a fallback. Clearly, the Beeb are planning for a serious fight.
Their submission is also littered with references to why the current licence fee setup should be retained. At one point, it suggests that “the BBC is happy to debate the future of the licence fee at the right time in the Charter cycle”. While they are right that the many changes can only be made when the Charter is up for renewal in 2027, this does not apply to decriminalisation - or indeed, the right to debate these concepts long in advance. Instead of attempting to stall efforts like ours to question why it is they get £155 a year from every household with a television, the BBC would be better off trying to engage with the arguments for reform right now. By 2027, a broadband tax will likely sound even more ludicrous.
Inadvertently, their submission to the consultation draws attention to how overgrown the BBC is. It notes that: “The BBC is the UK’s number one media provider reaching 9 out of 10 UK adults every week. It reaches 426 million people globally.”
The obsession with growth and expansion is one of the BBC’s great errors, sending the organisation veering away from its public service ideals. It results directly in the licence fee being so expensive; if the BBC didn’t produce millions of hours of content via its numerous TV channels, market-leading website and dozens of radio stations, they wouldn’t need to spend £3.9 billion a year. And remember, the media is one of very few industries where we still accept massive state holdings in the market. The BBC’s market share is over half of the radio and over 30% of TV. Were it privately owned, the Competition and Markets Authority would have long since intervened over the BBC’s extraordinary share of the market. Rather than boasting of its reach, the BBC should be questioned over its dominance.
Questionable polling in favour of the licence fee
In their submission, the BBC insist that “the licence fee continues to be the public’s preferred way to fund the BBC.” This claim should raise the eyebrows of anyone reading it, given our own polling last year found most people want it scrapped, especially in the most populous C2DE category - 68% of whom want it abolished. Other, recent polls have found even larger majorities in favour of getting rid of it. It also can’t have escaped their notice that the party promising to look at the future of the licence fee won a large majority in last year’s General Election.
It is hardly surprising that the BBC want to maintain the status quo. They receive billions each year, and unlike their commercial rivals they don’t have to worry about the wants of the viewing public. Commercial and subscription television and radio live and die based on whether people want to consume them. There is no reason why in a world of hundreds of broadcast options, every British household should have to pay for this exception. The weight of public opinion is on our side, and the BBC’s pivot towards considering a broadband tax seems to suggest they know it. But a broadband tax would be a poor solution to the fundamental problem that the BBC model of public service broadcasting is not fit for the 21st century. Of course, it is for campaigners like us to ensure that this doesn’t happen and instead that a fair and affordable subscription model is the future of the BBC.