When the BBC recently announced significant cutbacks, including scaling back its website and scrapping 6Music and the Asian Network (whether these were good decisions or not I’m not getting into here) one of the things that came up in the debate was a breakdown of the BBC’s spending.
While most commentary I saw highlighted the spending on “talent”, noting that Jonathan Ross and Anne Robinson together are paid the same as the whole cost of 6Music, the figure that really jumped out at me was the £123m dedicated to collecting the licence fee. Obviously I realised that there would be administration costs, plus all the threatening adverts, and those ominous vans that roam the streets hunting out rogue signals, but I hadn’t realised they were that high. I was already leaning towards abolishing the licence fee, but realising that some 100m could be saved if the BBC was paid for out of general taxation certainly shoved me over the edge.
Arguing for abolition usually comes from the right of the political spectrum, from those who are ideologically opposed to state funding of anything, those who think the BBC has a left-wing bias (in my view it is, broadly, socially liberal and economically conservative) and those who work for companies that are direct competitors with the Beeb – in particular the Murdoch press. These criticisms are usually wrong-headed, but that doesn’t mean that we should avoid coming to the same conclusion.
The strongest argument against the licence fee, though, is that it is horribly regressive. It doesn’t matter what your income is (bar a couple of exceptional categories) – you pay the same amount. While the general taxation system isn’t as progressive as I’d like, it’d be a far more legitimate source of revenue. Moreover, having to pay the fee every year (accompanied with threats against those who don’t comply) means that people are constantly reminded of the outlay. This can’t be good for maintaining the organisations popularity, even if it does remain pretty good value.
The argument in favour of the fee is that it guarantees the BBC is free of political interference and cutbacks at budget time. I think its independence is more threatened by the fact that it is constantly on the defensive and seeking to appease people who use the licence fee as a stick to beat it with, often as a proxy for other agendas, while I see no reason why its budget couldn’t be ringfenced within general taxation.