Andrew Allison: Why it’s time to scrap licence fee in age of iPlayer

JUST three months ago, the abolition of the TV licence fee was not on the agenda. Not so now. Ever since Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative backbencher, proposed decriminalising non-payment in March, those of us who want to go further and see the licence fee scrapped have found we have support not only from the great British public, but from BBC employees past and present.

One of the first to come out and argue for its abolition was Nick Ross, the former presenter of Crimewatch. He said “risk aversion is driving the BBC into a dead end. The licence fee, when it comes up for renewal in two years’ time, will be 90 years old, and as every year goes by, it becomes more and more anachronistic”.

More support has come from Armando Iannucci, the man who created programmes like Blackadder and The Thick of It. He said: “The BBC should make a mint from the brand internationally… there will be a subscription model.”

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So why has there been such a clamour in recent months, especially from people who do not have an axe to grind with the BBC? The answer is three-fold.

Firstly, the pace of technological change is relentless. Ten years ago, iPlayer and other on-demand services did not exist. The only thing that tweeted was a bird, a tablet was something you took as medication, smartphones had not been heard of, and Facebook had not been launched in the UK. The only way of watching television was through a television set. Today, iPlayer regularly gets more than 200 million requests every month. You can watch live television on your mobile phone or tablet computer. You can subscribe to services like Netflix and Love Film.

All of this is a nightmare for those who favour the licence fee. At the moment, as long as you do not watch live television through any device, you do not require a licence. But there’s no way of policing this. The BBC does not have the technology to monitor those watching live on their computers or phones, and it is illegal for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide the details of those logging on to iPlayer. Technology is rendering the licence fee redundant, and many of those who love the BBC recognise this. For the BBC to become a truly world player and to secure its future, it has to cut the licence fee’s apron strings.

The second reason is a growing majority of the British public sees the licence fee as something from yesteryear. It made sense when the only radio and television output was from the BBC. It doesn’t seem relevant in the multi-media world I have already outlined. If you don’t use BBC services, why should you be forced by law to pay for them? As Nick Ross said, the licence fee is becoming more and more anachronistic.

The final reason is the BBC doesn’t help its case. There are constant streams of negative stories about the Corporation’s largesse. The most recent is the amount of staff it has sent to cover the FIFA World Cup. Then there was the story that it had sent more staff to cover the Winter Olympics than there were British athletes.

Defenders of the licence fee raise the issue of the BBC’s public service broadcasting remit. They argue that without a licence fee, this would be lost. This is a fallacious argument. As part of our Axe the TV Tax campaign, The Freedom Association recognises the importance of public service broadcasting. Under our plans, genuine public service broadcasting would be funded through general taxation. This is not to say the BBC has, or should have, the monopoly on public service broadcasting. Other companies should have the right to bid for funding, stating clearly what they want to achieve.

BBC local radio provides an excellent service. Anyone who listens to their local BBC radio station in the morning gets a comprehensive round-up of the news that matters to their local area. There is strong case for funding that part of local radio through general taxation, although many of the other programmes would be commercially successful, and could be funded through a general subscription to the BBC.

It is not a matter of if the licence fee will be scrapped, but when. A commitment needs to be made during the charter renewal process after next year’s general election, to move towards a subscription model. The BBC needs to be slimmer, to be able to compete globally in a much more effective way, and to stop trying to be all things to all men. While there is a compulsory licence fee, this is not going to happen.

• Andrew Allison, from Hull, is campaign manager of the Freedom Association.