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The justifications for the BBC licence fee have gone away

My Times column on the BBC: 

The revelation that disc jockeys and football presenters are paid millions for topping and tailing segments of rehashed music or rebroadcast football, especially if they are male, will almost certainly lead to more pay inflation at the BBC — to correct the gender imbalance. Here’s another gender imbalance: television licence fee evasion accounted for 36 per cent of all prosecutions of women in 2015 and 6 per cent of men.

Are there any arguments left for funding one broadcaster through a compulsory and regressive poll tax? The original argument was that broadcasting was a natural monopoly and the airwaves a limited space. Well, that’s long gone. In the digital world, I can watch or listen to one of many thousands of channels through cable, satellite or the internet.

Then, for a while, I was at least partly persuaded by the fact that there were no advertisements interrupting BBC shows, unlike on commercial channels. But that no longer holds for two reasons: first, technology has led to subscription services with no interrupting commercials, like Netflix; second, the BBC runs endless ads itself. I get heartily sick of the repetitious commercials on Radio 4. True, they are all adverts for its own programmes — trailers — but that makes them even more annoying. If the BBC were running commercials for other people’s shows, at least it would be earning a bit of money to cut the licence fee.

After that, we were told the BBC makes the best programmes thanks to its secure funding stream. It certainly makes some good ones, but in the era of The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Killing and The Crown, it does not excel. Even the natural history unit, which is consistently excellent, now has to look over its shoulders at rivals. The best natural history show I have seen in recent years was Wild Ireland: The Edge of the World, made by an independent production company, Crossing the Line, and sold around the world.

Then we were told that the BBC is an innovator. We will grant it Civilisation, Bake Off and (Strictly) Come Dancing, but so it should be with a £4 billion annual licence fee. More often the BBC is a follower. It followed pirate radio into pop music, Sky into rolling news and ITV and Channel 4 into reality television. From Candid Camera to Gogglebox, it is rarely a pioneer.

Or we are told that the BBC makes films and programmes that nobody else would make, but that’s not true any more: in a digital, multi-channel world it is easier for independent programme-makers to exploit the “long tail” of rare interests and tastes, finding sufficient markets around the world for obscure types of highbrow arts or lowbrow tat.

Yes, but without the BBC, Britain’s talented film-makers, radio broadcasters and musicians would get no chance and we would be overwhelmed with American imports. Really? In book writing and print journalism Britain punches well above its weight in the English-speaking world. James Corden, Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson seem to have done all right as exports. As for Chris Evans and Gary Lineker, if they really could earn as much in the private sector, then they should do so.

But what about the BBC’s valuable impartiality in news and current affairs, drawing the nation together and setting a gold standard for unbiased reporting? You have to be joking. True, it gave Blairites as hard a time as Thatcherites — but nearly always using arguments from the left, not the right. You just don’t hear John Humphrys say: why not leave it to the market, minister, and cut taxes? (And Nick Clegg seems to have a permanent studio to himself.)

The claim to a lack of bias is in fact slightly sinister. There is no such thing: every broadcasting decision and angle on a news story is a choice. On Brexit, the BBC is relentlessly one-sided, not just in its choice of interviewees and the treatment it gives them, but in the commissioning of authored pieces. According to News-watch, listeners to the Today programme’s business coverage were three times as likely to hear a negative as a positive voice on Brexit in the six months after the referendum.

On behalf of a group of Labour, Conservative and other politicians, the Ukip peer Lord Pearson has been repeatedly asking the BBC’s director-general, Lord Hall, for a single example of a programme that explored the upside of Brexit — even a fictional film to balance things like the ludicrous Great European Disaster Movie, broadcast by the BBC in 2015. After months of asking, as Lord Pearson put it in a letter to Lord Hall: “We are still waiting for you to send us the transcript of a programme which has looked with enthusiasm at any of Brexit’s opportunities since 23rd June (see attached correspondence). We have dozens of transcripts of programmes which promote its possible pitfalls.”

Likewise on other issues, the BBC’s impartiality is a joke. It got into bed with the green movement on climate change. It even hired lawyers to try to keep secret the guest list of the seminar in 2006 with what it called “the best scientific experts” where it decided to stop being impartial on the subject. When the list came out anyway, these turned out to be mostly activists, not experts. It largely ignored an independent report in 2014 that it had commissioned, which found its countryside coverage was far too reliant on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

These are my personal beefs, true, and kind Times readers sometimes remind me that they disagree with them. But we pay for the BBC or go to jail; not so The Times. And the BBC is a near-monopoly of a kind that it would regard as intolerable in the private sector: some 70 per cent of people get their broadcast news from the corporation.

It is a curious historical fact that the BBC was founded in effect to limit free speech. The British establishment reacted with alarm when, in June 1920, Guglielmo Marconi made the first, private radio broadcast. Radio was put under the monopoly control first of the General Post Office and then, from 1926, the BBC. Later, commercial companies such as Marconi, the Daily Mail, HMV and EMI were dying to plunge into TV, as others were doing in America, but in Britain it was decreed that the state alone would inform and entertain us. The BBC was meant from the start to control what we hear and direct what we think.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times