The licence fee can’t be justified in the age of Netflix

Stephen Canning

January 7, 2020

Social media now seems perpetually awash with allegations of bias and conspiracy at the BBC, especially at times of heightened political engagement such as election periods. Most of these allegations, of course, are nonsense that can only come into being thanks to the closed nature of the Twitter echo chamber.

However, widespread discontent with our state broadcaster does raise questions about the role it plays in our media and political landscape. It’s ad-free, publicly funded and provided as a service for all. But it has become something of a sacred cow, such that it is difficult to freely debate its future without facing the wrath of the socialist mob.

The result is that many who are forced to pay for it feel short-changed. A recent survey found that ITV, which is funded by advertising, is now more trusted to provide impartial and accurate news than the BBC. And two-thirds of the British public declare that they are unhappy with the current licence fee structure and want to change how the BBC is funded.

Part of the problem is the Beeb’s apparent unwillingness to recognise its own mistakes. Lord Hall, its director general, dismissed these concerns, claiming that the fact the BBC receives complaints from both the left and the right must mean that it is doing nothing wrong.

This is dangerous territory. The BBC must not be elevated beyond criticism. It must be subjected to the same rigour as other broadcasters. Even its own former head of political output has publicly expressed concern about the quality of its journalism. It seems intent on adding more fuel to the fire through PR-blind moves such as hiring overtly partisan high-profile journalists.

As a result, we find ourselves in the quite ridiculous situation whereby government ministers are having to blacklist some of the BBC’s flagship programmes, including Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today programme, because they fear they will not get a fair hearing. What is the point of having a public broadcaster if it is widely deemed unable to adequately hold the government to account?

There is a great deal of merit in the idea of abandoning the licence fee altogether and moving to a subscription-based model. As well as everything else, this would put a stop to people finding themselves criminalised for watching TV without the appropriate licencing.

However, you only have to float the idea of altering the BBC’s funding structure and moving it away from a public model to provoke shrieks from the left about the evils of privatisation – in much the same way as serious debates around healthcare are de facto prohibited in this country. You only have to look at the enormous fuss out of nothing that Labour made during the election over the government’s trade talks with the United States – and that claim wasn’t even true.

Apart from putting an end to people watching BBC iPlayer for free by simply clicking “I have a licence fee”, a subscription-based model would allow the BBC to truly operate in the interests of us, the consumers, in a way that it is currently unable to do.

At the moment, the BBC is operating in the dark. The launch of its streaming service Britbox, for instance, touted as a rival to Netflix, was a flop. The corporation is simply proving unable to keep up with the rapidly evolving instant media industry and if something profound does not change soon, it risks becoming near redundant in the foreseeable future.

It urgently needs to open itself up to the market and put itself in a position to cater to what people actually want. The first step on that road is removing it from the remit of government and placing control into the hands of those who consume and fund its content.

During the election campaign, we were given plenty of reason to be hopeful in this area. Treasury minister and rising government star Rishi Sunak announced last month that decriminalisation of a failure to pay the licence fee is under consideration, with the prime minister going so far as to suggest abolishing the licence fee altogether. This would be a wholly positive move.

There is simply no argument that can justify keeping the BBC in the remit of government in the age of Netflix. If it wants to compete, let it try – but let it try on the same terms as everyone else.

Author

  • Stephen Canning is a County Councillor and Cabinet member at Essex County Council. He is a former District Councillor at Braintree District Council and formerly held a leading role in the Young Conservatives.

Written by Stephen Canning

Stephen Canning is a County Councillor and Cabinet member at Essex County Council. He is a former District Councillor at Braintree District Council and formerly held a leading role in the Young Conservatives.

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