Freezing the TV licence fee is not enough – it needs scrapping


The cost of living crisis is leading to pets being abandoned, Christmas parties being cancelled and fertility treatment delayed. Schools are becoming the “fourth emergency service” as they try to feed and clothe children. And that is just some of the BBC’s output on the subject from the past week.

But funnily enough there is one factor in the cost of living which doesn’t seem to get mentioned so much: the television licence fee. Next April, following a two year freeze, the licence fee is due to rise with inflation, taking it from £159 to £173.30.

That is a quite a hike for people on low incomes, or who are trying to live on fixed incomes from their savings, which is why culture secretary Lucy Frazer suggested yesterday that the BBC might be told it will have to put up with a lesser rise. The BBC is apparently unimpressed, with a source moaning “we get that there are cost of living challenges, but some of our competitors have put up costs by over 30 percent.”

I thought that the whole point of the BBC – and the justification for the licence fee – was that it was supposed to be public service broadcasting, doing important stuff which commercial broadcasters can’t or won’t do. In which case why is it talking about its ‘competitors’?

If it is admitting that it sees commercial broadcasters as competition then surely it ought to be accepting that it is time to do away with the licence fee and put itself on the same commercial footing as every other broadcaster: raising its revenue from subscriptions, advertising or a combination of both. To have one broadcaster funded by a hypothecated tax on TV ownership is blatantly unfair competition.

If the BBC feels short of money it has no-one to blame except itself. The licence fee became unsustainable a whole generation ago when television became an open market with dozens of channels. It was obvious years ago that as soon as broadband reached a high enough quality to allow streaming, without that irritating buffering that used to interfere with the picture, televisions were going to become as redundant as fax machines.

Sure enough, increasing numbers of people have worked out that they don’t need a TV to access all the entertainment they need (you are still supposed to buy a licence to access live programmes online, from any broadcaster, but then who watches live TV any more when there is such a vast library of material on offer all the time?). The number of TV licences plunged by 500,000 last year, in spite of a rising population, and the drop is gathering pace.

Not that this will stop the BBC thinking it is owed a living. The suggestion of former chairman Richard Sharp was that we should be taxed on our broadband instead, or have a mandatory levy on every household, with those living in more expensive homes paying more. No, thanks.

The government will be right to block a £15 rise in the licence fee next year, but it should stop pussyfooting around and announce now that when the BBC’s charter is next up for renewal in 2027 it will not receive income from any form of tax or compulsory levy – it will have to sing for its supper like everyone else. It would be hugely liberating for the BBC and licence fee-payer alike.

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