By Andrew Allison, Chief Executive
We are due a mid-term review of the BBC’s Royal Charter, which “must be completed between 2022 and 2024”, according to a DCMS policy paper which was published last year. Interestingly, this review will also look at editorial standards and impartiality.
The Freedom Association has for many years campaigned for the abolition of the television licence. We have always viewed it as an anachronism; something which should have been abolished many years ago. Of course, if it hadn't been for political interference, the BBC may never have become the state broadcaster as we know it today. In 1920s America there was an explosion of private radio stations, broadcasting whatever they liked. Entrepreneurs in Britain looked to America and thought, “If only we could do that here. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?” And it would have been, but the ruling classes in Britain were horrified at the thought. Horrified and terrified, to be precise.
The ability of just about anyone to broadcast what they liked into potentially millions of homes was something that the Government didn’t want. It did, though, award a single licence to a consortium of private companies which became the British Broadcasting Company. Here we have the birth of the BBC. Not long after that it ceased to be a private company: it was nationalised.
When all you have is one radio broadcaster, which, of course, was all the Government at the time wanted, and indeed allowed, having a radio licence to fund that broadcaster made sense.
In 1946, it made sense to introduce a combined radio and television licence to fund the BBC’s rapidly expanding television operation. It cost the princely sum of £2. According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, that is the equivalent of £63.80 today.
This should have been reviewed, though, when the Government allowed independent television, but of course, it wasn’t. Funding one broadcaster through a compulsory licence fee continued and continues to this day, despite many technological changes over the years.
For example, Jawed Karim, Chad Hurley, and Steve Chen came up with the idea of building a video sharing website when they couldn't find online videos about key events of interest at the time. The result was the launch of YouTube in February 2005. In 2006, Facebook became accessible to the general public. Last year, it was estimated that there were almost three billion Facebook users. Twitter was also launched in 2006 and currently has over 368 million monthly active users worldwide.
In the space of a couple of years, the way we communicated and shared information had started to change forever. But technology doesn’t hang around and also in 2006, Channel 4 launched its own on-demand streaming service. On 25th December 2007, the BBC launched its iPlayer; followed by Channel 5 and ITV in 2008.
In May 2009, there were 55 million TV requests for BBC iPlayer. In May 2015, the figure had increased to 242 million. Last year, BBC iPlayer passed the seven-billion streams milestone. More and more of us are watching television when we want to, and are doing it on a variety of devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, laptop and desktop computers.
Services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Now (operated by Sky) are staples in millions of homes in the UK. What they have in common is that they are not as interested in ratings as they are in the number of subscribers they have. If what they offer is of a poor quality, people will vote with their direct debits. Massive amounts of money is being spent by these streaming giants as they constantly strive to increase and improve their output.
The world of broadcasting has changed, and yet the BBC holds on to the licence fee with the resolve of a child holding onto his or her mother’s apron strings. In the past, it has orchestrated campaigns fronted by well known celebrities to protect its income stream - and also the income stream of many well known celebrities who rely on the BBC for work. After listening to some of the rubbish emanating from their mouths you could be forgiven for thinking that the creative industries in the UK would burn in the fires of hell if the BBC didn’t forcibly extract its direct debits from our bank accounts.
Former Labour politician, James Purnell, who was a senior executive at Broadcasting House from 2013-2020, once said that if non-payment of the licence fee was decriminalised, the loss of income would mean cuts to children’s television. Purnell’s comments highlighted just how desperate and lacking in ideas the BBC is at times.
The truth is the BBC dominates and skews the broadcasting market in this country. The only way it can do that is because of the licence fee. According to Ofcom, the “BBC remains the news organisation with the highest cross-platform audience reach (76%) among those following news.” It has its fingers in every pie imaginable. It crowds out other broadcasters and newspapers.
In a desperate attempt to be relevant to younger people, it alienates its core audience. Younger people are not as interested in the BBC as their parents and grandparents were at their age.
As we move into this mid-term review of the BBC’s Royal Charter, questions ought to be asked about why the BBC is so big. Why can't it be slimmed down? Why is it constantly chasing ratings and crowding out other broadcasters, newspapers,and news websites? Why does it have to depend on a mandatory licence fee? The rest of the world has seen how broadcasting has changed and continues to change, so why doesn’t the BBC concentrate on what it does best?
A number of years ago, David Elstein, a respected independent television producer, said:
"The BBC regularly reminds us that, at 40p a day, its huge array of output is a tremendous bargain. The trouble is that nothing is a bargain if you have no choice but to buy it. If the BBC really believed its own propaganda about the 40p, it would embrace subscription without a second thought. That it is so viscerally opposed to subscription – and to choice, a word rarely on the lips of BBC mandarins – is a reminder that its business model relies upon criminal sanctions to achieve success.”
It’s time to end this distortion in the broadcasting market place. It’s time to end the compulsory funding of one broadcaster, irrespective of whether or not you watch any of its output. It’s time to axe the TV tax and allow us to be free to make our own choices.