I know delusion when I see it: Why the BBC has to give up the licence fee, and fast

I love the BBC.  I’ve always said so, in conversation, in blogs and in tweets.  It is genuinely a ‘national treasure’, doing more for our soft power and national culture than any other institution.  Attacks on the BBC by national politicians always seem to me to be uniquely self-destructive, since if Auntie wasn’t there the UK would be diminished (even if only by a tiny bit), and the lives of our diplomats, exporters and many others would be that bit harder.  Whatever happens, in my eyes the BBC should be protected and cherished.

I am also maddened by the BBC.  There are things it produces which are lazy tripe (the 606 football phone-in is probably the worst of all, although those cheap and nasty shows featuring “calls from the listeners” all deserve a special place in Hell).  But these are trivialities compared to its tendency for navel-gazing whenever it reports on itself.  And when the issue is the way it is funded the waves of defensiveness make me ready to chuck the radio or television out of the window like any common or garden gammon-faced Telegraph reader.

Last night I listened to Stephen Nolan’s show on Radio 5 Live on the way home, and was treated to the classic defence of the licence fee.  It is always horrible to hear: smug and complacent, and utterly divorced from reality.  The argument has four main strands:

  • Other media organisations are just trying to do us down for competitive reasons, and they’ve got in the ear of all these Tories and/or politicians don’t like us because we hold them to account;
  • We’re a national treasure and people like watching Strictly;
  • Nobody likes adverts getting in the way of the drama; and
  • Because we are funded by the licence fee we have to produce programming for everyone, which means we have to collect more and more money so that we can make popular shows that could easily fund themselves, and also keep churning out ‘yoof’ programmes on BBC3 even though no-one watches them.

So much for the BBC’s arguments.  Maybe there is an element of truth in all of them.  In particular, I have quite a bit of sympathy for the claim that politicians often say the BBC is biased because it is relatively impartial and happens not to be willing to parrot their point of view: the same is often said of the civil service and other institutions.  (Having said that, there is a reason why Auntie’s employees, like Whitehall officials, are easy to lampoon as middle-class, north London, Guardian-reading liberals who are pretty comfortable with the world as it is, and thus have cautious and conservative instincts – and so irritate all sides in these populist times.)  But in the end none of this matters.

The sad fact is, for the BBC, that change is coming whether it wants it or not, and it won’t be the result of ideological conviction.  Technology will kill the licence fee, just as it is forcing every other media outlet to change its funding model.  Spotify and even Amazon make music radio pretty redundant.  Netflix and other streaming services undermine the case for televised drama.  News can be obtained from a million different sources, sport from a million more.  There is no case for trying to charge everyone for the BBC’s output when more and more people can manage without it and will increasingly refuse to pay the licence fee.  In pretending otherwise the BBC is like a modern day King Canute, closer and closer to drowning as wave after wave of technology washes over its head.

The BBC needs to accept this.  It needs to start to make a case for funding from general taxation for the public goods it delivers: essentially its relatively unbiased news, much depended-on at times of national crisis, and the World Service which takes a positive view of the UK all over the world.  It might be able to claim support for BBC Worldwide on the grounds that it extends our ‘global reach’, and there may be a case for it – and others – competing for grants for some important programming with a limited audience.  But the rest of it has to be funded in another way – adverts, sponsorships, subscriptions, maybe a combination of all of them.  Time for the BBC and those who work for it, Mr Nolan included, to change their views of the licence fee, and fast.

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