What should Auntie do now?

Yesterday’s announcement by DCMS Culture Secretary freezing the BBC licence fee for the next two years (until April 2024) before allowing it to rise in line with inflation until April 2028, was an interesting exercise in news management since much of the coverage concerned how the licence fee will be replaced from 2028. The DCMS statement itself really wasn’t about that – the future beyond 2028 was somewhat shoe-horned into the press release as its very last paragraph, covering around 60 words out of about 900.

Nevertheless, the BBC has some powerful detractors in the media, all with their own vested interests in getting rid of the licence fee; the ongoing ‘culture war’ evidently sees the BBC as one enemy (among many); and Secretary of State Nadine Dorries first announced the news by the somewhat unusual method of tweeting out a link to a Daily Mail article (and clearly setting out her own agenda for the press release in the process), only tweeting the link to the official DCMS press release sometime later. A department whose current political head believes that this licence fee settlement should be the last might seem – in the context of a forthcoming separate consultation on ‘whether the licence fee will remain a viable funding model for the BBC’ – might seem to have rather pre-judged the outcome of that consultation.

And, of course – of course – this government of populists (that is, this Prime Minister) needs a few distracting headlines of its own right now.

The single argument raised in support of the freeze – that people facing ‘a sharp increase in their living costs’ could not be asked to pay more for the BBC at this point – is a powerful, but multi-sided, one. We should question the role being played by the government’s own policies in the steepness of that increase and what it ought to be doing to redress those in practice.

Furthermore, this is a government whose policies usually pay attention to the living standards of working people only when it suits it: it is failing to address the dramatic rise in energy costs being experienced by people whose energy suppliers (or re-sellers) are bankrupting themselves; it refused to extend the £20 uplift to universal credit given during the early stages of Covid-19; and it only acted on free school meals during school holidays when it was publicly shamed into doing so by Marcus Rashford (whose subsequent gong courtesy of Her Madge is telling on so many levels). The failure of wages even to keep pace with inflation – yesterday’s other half of today’s living costs news – gives a further lie to the arguments of Brexiteer cheerleaders (Nadine Dorries among them) about the ‘reserve army of labour’ coming from the EU (to which there were anyway other solutions than Brexit): almost as if the weakness of our labour market institutions (i.e. our trade unions) hadn’t been the intended result of much of public labour market policy for the last forty years. And, indeed, where is the Employment Bill?

Naturally, a ‘sharp rise’ in inflation means that the freezing of the BBC licence fee will have an even more deleterious impact on its services – that’s programmes, of course – since it will need to be either ‘absorbed’ (by way of ‘efficiencies’ – also known as ‘cuts’) or else in reduced levels of programming (which are also quite clearly cuts).

While recognising that £159/year (or £13.25/month) is a lot of money – quarterly and monthly payment options are available, at little or no extra cost – and that more needs to be done in respect of those on low incomes and the elderly, I think the licence fee provides good value and should be retained. This is clearly not a popular view – note that the BBC’s own reporting of yesterday’s story contains, quite uniquely, a section on ‘Can I legally avoid paying the licence fee?’ – but I’m far from alone here: in-depth 2016 opinion poll research by GfK (for the government) on the alternative options then under consideration emerged with the view that the licence fee was actually the most favoured of these (section 7; p. 40ff).

Comparatively speaking, the licence fee is also in fairly rude health. A subscription to the news and opinion columns of a leading newspaper, often linked to in these parts, is £119/year (or £11.99/month); a Netflix subscription costs, at basic, single, level £5.99/month – or £13.99 for a family of four watching screens at the same time; Sky plus Netflix is £26/month (18-month contract); and Sky plus Netflix plus broadband stacks out at £46/month (18-month contract). With Netflix – a platform which, essentially, is collecting your information about your viewing habits with a view to monetising you further – there is of course no public service broadcasting element; Sky – no longer a vehicle of the Murdoch family following its sale to US giant Comcast in 2018 – also has no public service broadcasting obligations and its basic programming (not including sports…) thus costs at least as much again as the BBC licence fee. In terms of earnings, the £3.05/week which the licence fee costs (per household) compares pretty favourably with the £550/week which is the November 2021 average weekly pay figure.

Quite a lot of people yesterday were spending time justifying – one way or another – their BBC viewing and listening habits, but I think this is a dead end. I suspect that few of us escape the BBC entirely (and why on earth would you want to?) and, while there are rightly some things that need to be learned around pay equality, around some of its editorial decisions, around its interpretation of its requirement for impartiality (flat earth being but the latest ridiculousness), as well as around its role as a part of the establishment, the BBC does do a lot of things very well. It’s very easy to focus on an area of public spending on which individuals don’t see a lot of personal return (health, roads, benefits) and demand a cut – but we can’t escape taxation and we don’t live in a pick’n’mix society (and nor should we). There is, however, such a thing as public goods – things for which we all pay regardless of individual consumption but which lowers the cost to all of us. To me, the BBC is a public good (a look at other subscriptions – as above – points heavily in this direction, too) – and the ‘soft power’ return to ‘global Britain’ of a corporation which has worldwide brand recognition and which enjoys global trust is incalculable. We squander that at our peril.

Nevertheless, the perils of squandering things do not tend to occupy for very long the thought processes of vandals determined to stamp their boots over society. Dorries’s very public scribbling on the wall doesn’t signal the end of the licence fee as much as advertise for trainee grave diggers and fire lighters – though we should note that 2028 is at least one government away, and that even 2024 may well not end up within the purview of this one (please). Dorries herself is unlikely to see 2024 in post – there have been no fewer than six secretaries of state within DCMS in the 4.5 years since it was established and she is thus already almost half-way through the average tenure.

If I was Tim Davie, I would thus be putting a deal of effort into building relationships within the opposition, within the trade unions and within the creative sector generally ahead of the DCMS consultation with a view to building as much support as possible around the future for public service broadcasting in order to raise public perceptions of how much the BBC does in this area. While the question of the consultation is for another day (it will come: this government is, in respect of its pet projects, one that is in a hurry, as much as it is slothful elsewhere), I note that the BBC is not the only public service broadcaster and that others are funded for this role from central taxation. Where we end up in terms of BBC funding, presuming a continuation of current policy, may well therefore be some sort of hybrid model of central taxation plus subscription (I’m not arguing for this – just what I think is most likely). In this respect, maximising the channels which are geared to delivering public service broadcasting (and which are funded out of taxation) may well be the best means of minimising the impact of those boots.

[EDITED 19 January 2021 to record that Sky is now owned by Comcast.]

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