by Elliot Keck, investigations campaign manager
The TaxPayers’ Alliance has long called for serious, far reaching reform of public service broadcasting. We have railed against wasteful spending at the BBC and challenged the organisation on its establishment outlook, which often ignores the concerns of typical taxpayers and tends towards an ever-bigger state. We have also called for the sale of Channel 4 and questioned why on earth the government needs to own two broadcasters.
Lots of people are open to these ideas. There would likely be strong support for a smaller, state-funded BBC; adhering to past principles of high culture and serious news. But that’s not what the broadcaster is - and hasn’t been for some time. It competes in the commercial market using taxpayers’ money, helping to kill off local media outlets with its dominant regional stations, and wasting cash chasing a youth audience that has long-since fled television in its traditional format.
The BBC isn’t the only channel struggling to find its footing in the modern media market. Channel 4’s commitment to “create change through entertainment” through “representing unheard voices” sounds very noble, but it’s more than slightly at odds with the channel’s recent additions to its programming. As brilliant as they are, it’s a bit of a stretch to call Stephen Fry and Andrew Neil “unheard voices.” If Channel 4 is commercially viable, what need is there for it to be underwritten by the taxpayer?
But at least there’s no annual bill to taxpayers for Channel 4 ownership; no hated TV tax. And the release this week of the BBC’s annual report shows exactly where your licence fee is going: straight into the back pockets of their big hitters and top execs. Whether it’s their news hosts or sports presenters, salaries have barely budged - and in some cases have gone up! In the back office, director-general Tim Davie has received a whopping 15 per cent pay rise. Nice work if you can get it.
This news comes in the first full year of over-75s having to pay the licence fee. The Beeb would rather fleece pensioners than cut its wasteful diversity budgets and top star salaries.
The licence fee is simply not fit for the 21st century. With drastic technological change and the many ways in which people watch the media, the current model is increasingly outdated. The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee have acknowledged as much in a new report, Licence to Change: BBC future funding. In the report, which explores a number of opportunities for funding the BBC, the committee concludes that “many of the apparent advantages of the licence fee are under threat, and it has several drawbacks.”
But the committee’s alternative suggestions are scarcely an improvement. Key among these is a universal household levy. Supposedly this could offer a “viable alternative to the licence fee” which, if means tested, would be “fairer than the current model.” The committee suggests linking the fee to council tax. We’ve seen this before, with suggestions of whacking the BBC licence fee onto broadband bills. Whatever bells and whistles you attach, this would still mean taxpayers being forced to prop up the BBC - even those who don’t even own a telly!
Clearly, there is now a lively debate about the future funding model of the Beeb. Boris Johnson’s government signalled in January that the licence fee would be scrapped. It is vital that the new culture secretary reaffirms this commitment. But there are changes that could be made now, such as decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee. Proceeding with the sale of Channel 4, which could raise £2 billion for the nation’s creaking coffers, would also signal a commitment to desperately-needed reform of public sector broadcasting.
Let’s remember that hundreds of thousands of people are still prosecuted every year for non-payment of the licence fee, while BBC bosses take home the big bucks. It’s time to axe the TV tax, once and for all.