Andrew Allison: Why the complacent BBC should not count upon the licence fee

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IF you go down to your local high street and ask ordinary licence fee payers what the BBC’s public purposes are, you will be very lucky to find anyone who has heard of them. The House of Lords Communications Committee, though, has started a review into those public purposes to “consider their continued relevance”.

These public purposes were first introduced in the early 2000s, and were incorporated into the Royal Charter in 2006. For the uninitiated, they are sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning, stimulating creativity and cultural excellence, representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities and bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK.

You can imagine a few “Sir Humphrey” types at the BBC putting that list together – people who live in a rarefied atmosphere and think that the whole of the country thinks the same way as they do, or if they don’t think the same way, they jolly well should!

These public purposes, though, do serve one useful purpose: a stick to hit the BBC with when it comes to the licence fee. If the vast majority of the BBC’s output ticked those boxes, they could in many ways justify the licence fee. But they can’t.

Let’s face it, most of the BBC’s output is not public service broadcasting. Just take a look at a typical daytime schedule on BBC1. It’s either entertainment or lifestyle shows. They hardly promote education and learning, or stimulate creativity and cultural excellence. Homes under the Hammer and Bargain Hunt can hardly be described as bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK. And the daytime soap opera Doctors does not promote education and learning – although if you’ve ever watched an episode, you may learn to never watch another one again.

There is a serious debate to be had in this country about public service broadcasting. Specifically, what is and what isn’t. The theory goes that if you do not have a public service broadcaster, the quality of programming heads inexorably south. That doesn’t hold water.

The quality of drama on ITV is consistently high. If ITV’s only competition was the BBC, you could argue that if the BBC wasn’t there, ITV’s offering would be much poorer. But ITV has competition from all quarters. If has to compete on a commercial basis with not only the likes of Sky and Virgin, but with Netflix and Amazon too. Netflix and Amazon are not interested in audience numbers either – they are interested in the number of subscribers. If what they offer is of a poor quality, people will vote with their direct debits.

Amazon performed a broadcasting coup by getting Messrs Clarkson, May and Hammond to agree to make three series of a new motoring show for Amazon Prime. The three said that “they’ll give us the freedom to make the programme we want... there’s a budget to produce programmes of the quality we want and this is the future”.

It certainly is the future, and it’s a future the BBC is trying to run away from. As more of us buy Smart TVs, more of us are going to buy subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon, and whoever else is going to enter the market. With a Smart TV, it’s as easy to watch something online, as it is to watch terrestrial or satellite TV.

New generations won’t even notice the difference. It will rapidly become the norm. Yet the BBC continues to hold on to the licence fee with the resolve of a child holding on to its mother’s apron strings. If the BBC is as good as it says it is, then is has nothing to fear from earning its income from something other than a TV tax.

It says that at 40p a day, it is great value for money, but neglects to add that if you don’t watch, or hardly ever watch, the BBC’s output, it isn’t. And how can any fee forcibly removed from your bank account just to fund one broadcaster represent value for money?

Although many would have you believe otherwise, the creative industries in the UK are not going to burn in the fires of hell if the BBC was funded through voluntary subscription. And there wouldn’t be a first and second class BBC if the licence fee was scrapped, as James Purnell, the BBC’s Director of Strategy and Digital claimed recently. There would simply be more choice for the consumer who could tailor their viewing packages for their needs.

Just because I can’t stand EastEnders, doesn’t mean that others think the same way. Just because I enjoy political programmes, doesn’t mean that everyone else does. As we move to more tailored packages, production companies and broadcasters are going to be more in-tune with that their audiences want – and this applies more so in niche areas.

Amazon is certainly confident that it can attract hundreds of thousands of new subscriptions by catering for former Top Gear fans. This will drive standards upwards in all areas and genres. So the message to the House of Lords Communications Committee is that the way to promote education and learning, and the way to stimulate creativity and cultural excellence, is not to fine someone on benefits for not paying their licence fee. It is instead to allow all of us to pay our money and take our choice.

And you know something? The BBC will be better off too.

Andrew Allison, from Hull, is head of campaigns at The Freedom Association.