The BBC licence fee has got to go

Why is the state still forcing people to pay for TV stations they don't watch?

Andrew Tettenborn

Topics Culture UK

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has announced a consultation on the future of the TV licence fee. It specifically asks whether watching live TV without paying the licence fee should continue to be treated as a criminal offence, or whether it should instead be subject to some form of civil-enforcement procedure.

Large numbers of libertarians have cheered Johnson’s announcement. But their celebrations are premature.

First, this will not result in the abolition of the licence fee. Decriminalising non-payment actually changes very little. It merely replaces one form of enforcement (criminal fines) with another (civil court action).

True, it looks radical and liberal, and in one sense it is. In 2018, for example, already overburdened criminal courts had to process and convict 121,000 people of licence evasion, fining them, on average, £176. That in itself is a terrible waste of time and resources. Moreover, since many of the convicted are already struggling financially, fining them merely makes their situations worse. This needs stopping.

But decriminalising licence evasion won’t address the fundamental problem with the TV-licence system – which is that, as it stands, you have to pay for a TV licence whether or not you watch the BBC at all. This potentially forces householders to pay for a service they do not want in order to be allowed to to access those TV services they do want. It is equivalent to being required to pay for a newspaper permit, which funds one newspaper, in order to be allowed to read any newspaper. This should not be the state’s role. It should not be in the business of forcing people to buy media of any kind. And this regime of forced purchase from a privileged supplier will remain in place regardless of whether non-payment is punished in the criminal or the civil courts.

Secondly, decriminalisation will actually make it more, not less, difficult to deal with the aggressive tactics of TV Licensing (TVL), the body authorised to collect the fee. At present, if you ignore TVL, you are actually in quite a strong position. It may bluster and send out pseudo-official letters, but, if you call its officers’ bluff, it will have no choice but to to try to prove that TV is being illegally viewed to a bench of magistrates. That is not so easy today, when it is entirely plausible for a family’s entire viewing to consist of non-licensable DVDs and Netflix.

A civil-enforcement regime, by contrast, would make life easier for TVL apparatchiks and harder for the refuseniks. Proof of TV viewing would be on a balance of probabilities; criminal safeguards would not apply; and one can bet that TVL would be given the power to issue fixed civil penalties that, unless challenged in court within a certain time (thus putting the burden of acting on the householder), would be automatically effective.

Under a civil-enforcement regime, TVL’s ability to harass citizens – mostly vulnerable ones – would be considerably enhanced. To non-payers, it could issue dire threats of court action, county-court judgments, bailiffs, debt collectors and loss of credit status. With those who don’t have a great deal of money or self-assurance, threats of this kind can be very effective at extracting unwilling payment, even where perhaps there is no actual need for a licence at all.

There is of course another and more obvious way to deal with the licence-fee problem, which would solve all these difficulties. The licence is a leftover from the days when a limited number of state-approved bodies provided broadcasts with no workable technology to stop non-subscribers receiving them. These days there is no sensible argument against phasing out the whole system and telling the BBC to use the time to make itself into a subscription channel.

Unfortunately, members of the BBC managerial class hate this idea. And it’s easy to see why. It undermines their leisured lifestyle and potential for patrician posturing. Worse still, if it ever happened, it would for the first time force the BBC to produce, not the kind of high-minded stuff they themselves prefer to discuss over dinner, but what the despised Brexit-voting people in places like Portsmouth, Preston or Peterborough might actually want to watch.

Why has Boris Johnson not gone down this road? We can make an educated guess. Governments that publicly announce an attack on vested interests have a nasty habit of quietly assuring those same interests that they will continue protected. And there is no reason to think Johnson’s government, even with its big majority, is any different.

Let’s surmise, for a moment, that, ever since the election, envoys from the BBC have been working overtime bending the ears of ministers and mandarins. They will have whispered that a subscription model would be too much of an upheaval for the public-spirited values of such a ‘national treasure’. And they will have added, to receptive ears, that simple decriminalisation would take the heat off the BBC and, if spun right, off the government, too.

We don’t know whether this is true. But with a government preoccupied with more pressing matters, and desperate for some quick-fix headlines, it sounds horribly plausible.

Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law and a former Cambridge admissions officer.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Chris Hilton

15th February 2020 at 12:00 pm

I’ve only ever watched the BBC. I will never watch or listen to a commercial station because I can’t stand the brain destroying adverts. If the license fee doubled I would still pay it. You morons can wallow in your adverts forever.

Alex Ander

13th February 2020 at 5:54 pm

There’s no doubt there is a soft-left bias in many areas of BBC content. That’s not really a matter for debate anymore; many ex-BBC employees such as John Humphries, Robin Aitken etc have confirmed left-leaning woke-ishness is an accepted part of BBC culture.

So why is this an issue for the BBC versus, for example, Channel 4?

It’s because the issue isn’t really the content per se, but more the fact that the BBC is funded by the taxpayer – through licencing and other stealth taxes, whereas Channel 4 is funded also by the taxpayer via advertising revenue from private enterprises.

Okay, so maybe it’s just the perception that because there is pseudo-compulsory tax (which is actually optional anyway) for the BBC that this needs to somehow serves everyone interests and biases equally?

The problem is that individuals are biased – each and every person has their own bias. So why would a large corporation collecting these individual biases somehow shake-out and be neutral?

It’s an easy target – to take aim at the BBC, like so many do with political parties, political leaders – they’re sitting ducks waiting to be shot down.
But the truth of the matter is that the BBC in all it’s glory is not really any different to any other place of work in 2020 – a collection of people with many views and opinions. We’re getting hung up on paying £154.50 because some of it is going towards Gary Linekers latest botox, but in reality we’re getting hung-out-to-dry funding probably many other things and people we don’t at all support or endorse…
Isn’t just the reality of living in the UK, post-Brexit 2020?

Alex Ander

13th February 2020 at 5:31 pm

It’s not quite correct to suggest that the state still forcing people to pay for TV stations they don’t watch.
Actually, if you legitimately don’t watch any BBC content then it’s a very simple process – you simply cancel you payment and fill out a ‘no licence needed’ declaration form.

a watson

13th February 2020 at 9:16 am

How they despise and fear the British working class male.

Norman Baker

12th February 2020 at 3:39 pm

It is a shame a British institution coming up to its centenary which I used to criticise for being too British and conservative has turn into such a steaming pile of woke leftist shit.

In principle I don’t have a problem with a publicly funded broadcast services. They can provide very good value for money. If the BBC remains funded by the public it needs to governed by a broad spectrum of that public not a bunch of lefty metropolitan chattering class assholes.

Alan Howatt

12th February 2020 at 2:48 pm

Perhaps the model used in Canada to fund our version of the BBC, namely the CBC ( Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) would work. The CBC, which only a minority of Canadians watch or listen to, is funded by a grant from the federal government for a five-year term. At the end of the term, there is a chance to grill the corporation executives before another grant is sanctioned. There is no licence fee. This means, of course, that those who have little income and pay no tax do not pay for the Corporation. The rest of us do through general taxation.

Geoff Cox

12th February 2020 at 1:18 pm

We need to be a bit more precise with our criticism of the BBC. What they produce today (including their website) is excellent ie the production. What I think we object to is the woke content of the news and current affairs and now obviously throughout the whole range of programmes right down to CBeeBies. Take the recent Christmas Carol – excellent production, impossible to watch for the deliberately re-written woke content.

The way the BBC is funded is not really an issue when the content is generally approved of – except that we all have a suspicion (ie 99%) that vast sums are wasted on dinners, taxis, hotel, salaries and all the rest.

Linda Payne

12th February 2020 at 10:54 am

The trouble with the BBC is that it does not give new dramas or comedy the chance to grow. The first series of only fools and horses flopped but they persevered and the rest is Del Boy history. I would have no problem paying the fee if the quality of programing was improved as I hate having my viewing pleasure interrupted by innane adverts every 20 minutes

jan mozelewski

12th February 2020 at 11:34 am

The problem is that because they get the money anyway, there is no incentive for them to improve. That is why standards are what they are I’m afraid. The ‘telly tax’ is rather like a lot of socialist hand-outs…it becomes a disincentive to improve and also fosters a feeling of entitlement.

nick hunt

12th February 2020 at 4:30 pm

No worries about brainwashing the nation with leftist bias?

In Negative

12th February 2020 at 10:50 am

“Worse still, if it ever happened, it would for the first time force the BBC to produce, not the kind of high-minded stuff they themselves prefer to discuss over dinner, but what the despised Brexit-voting people in places like Portsmouth, Preston or Peterborough might actually want to watch.”

Are you joking? Some of the greatest and most watched TV ever made has been made by the BBC. And in its day, that stuff could capture the high and the low brow without even thinking about demographics and target markets. It’s the private sector that divided the public up into competing consumer interests as opposed to a citizen body, and in that shifted the gaze of artistic production to the assumed values of various demographiics. This ideology (that the public are consumers, not citizens) is the ideology that currently runs the BBC.

Personally, I like the idea of a public service broadcaster – not one filled with w*nkers from business schools with their managerial and business degrees, but an actual broadcaster that would look for good writing and put stuff on without having to worry about its market value. A place where writers, documentary makers, comedians etc could experiment and see what works. A news producer that was free of capital interests and made some effort to be independent wouldn’t be bad either.

steve moxon

12th February 2020 at 11:42 am

“In its day” is the operative phrase here.
Since then the Boob has bought completely into ‘identity politics’ totalitarianism to become an active oppressor of the mass of ordinary people.
It’s also dumbed-down to the extent of its documentaries being worthless, through its subterranian opinion of viewers (aka ‘inclusivity’) and political propagandising, with the whole Corporation now scientifically illiterate.
The Boob is full-on public DISservice broadcasting.

jan mozelewski

12th February 2020 at 1:19 pm

Beat me to it, Steve..’in its day’….
That phrase is so often a preamble to sentimentality rather than logical discussion.

john larkin

12th February 2020 at 12:31 pm

The BBC’s current content is more dross than “high minded”; does the author, or half of those commenting, actually watch it these days?

nick hunt

12th February 2020 at 4:37 pm

The whole point is that people from Portsmouth, Peterborough and Preston are seen as inferior dumb gammons by the pompous, leftist bigots who control the BBC, are forced to pay for their salaries whether they watch increasingly woke crap or not, and is this fair?

In Negative

12th February 2020 at 4:52 pm

@Jan & @Steve
My point: why destroy it? Why not instead revive the public service ethos that created it?

In my view, your critique of the beeb is just wrong. The beeb was through the 90s a blundering imbecile that sacrificed all that was good in it in order to compete in the free market. It was colonised by a private sector liberalism/neo-liberalism which is what it now represents.

The staggering thing about the beeb is, having turned its back on the public sector and sided with a neo-liberal Blairism, it now finds itself surprised when it turns around to see all its comrades looking at it like hyenas. It’s like a fat kid that joined in with the bullies to kill all the other fat kids before turning in triumph only to see all his former friends are looking at him with daggers in their eyes: “You’re the only fat kid left, lad.”

Honestly though, I think it’s far too late. The beeb probably is a dead man walking. ‘Public service’ probably is a nostalgia – much like ‘the public’. The beeb was ideologically communitarian whereas the future is fragmentation. The future appears to me to be all competition and transnational metastatic echo chambers. Libertarian, if you like.

jan mozelewski

12th February 2020 at 11:53 pm

I think it has gone too far. It isn’t so much the fall of standards (which anyone who is over 45 will find catastrophic) ….it is the loss of public trust which is the fatal blow. It was an institution which based its whole credibility on its professed unbiased reporting of events and view of the world. THAT was the reason we paid up for the fee….to get an unbiased broadcast service.
It had one job….and it has screwed up.

In Negative

13th February 2020 at 11:32 am

The loss of public trust has always been kind of deliberate. The problem of the BBC is not with the BBC itself, it’s with the social structure on which the BBC stands.

Did you know that there was a “chair of communication and language” in Oxford that was funded by Murdoch? My point isn’t “oh, let’s all hate on Murdoch, he’s the devil.” He’s fine in himself – he is what he is and I don’t much care about him, but it is telling that our most prominent universities see him as an exemplar par exellence in “Language and Communication”. That his model of ‘selling communication’ dominates public service communication. It’s places like Oxford where the kids that run the Beeb are found. It can be no surprise the beeb is in the state it’s in.

steve moxon

12th February 2020 at 10:16 am

Paying for our own oppression is far and away the major argument against the BBC, and this applies even if it were free. If anything the Boob should be paying US for the ‘identity politics’ totalitarian filth they broadcast into our homes.
What we need is a genuine public service broadcaster, in particular of actually informative science and tech documentaries, and that don’t talk down to an audience it assumes can’t cope with more than five minutes of actual content in an hour-long program, and dumbed-down at that; and absent the politics that marr the American PBS and Smithsonian channels.
This could cost peanuts, so wouldn’t be worth the administrative costs of a poll tax, and as anyway an entirely insignificant cost in the context of government spending should be funded out of general taxation.

Rick O’Shay

12th February 2020 at 9:34 am

Simpler solution:— Do away wit the BBC completely. It actually has 27 radio stations in the UK alone and world stations too, all with highly paid “presenters”. Stop all this unnecessary nonsense.

Gareth Hart

12th February 2020 at 9:20 am

It would also result in the end of Freeview, Freesat, free-to-air radio, public service broadcasting and encourage significant increases in mobile phone bills, ISP fees, line rental, pay TV subscription fees (because who will be enforcing the BBC paywall?), newspapers (who’ll go digital) and over-the-top providers such as Netflix, Amazon, BritBox and Disney+, taking advantage of lesser competition and additional revenue. Meanwhile, the poorest and elderly who may struggle with the licence fee but have TV and radio as their only companion and news provider are further polarised digitally as the digital and information divide widens.

Advocate for the abolition of the licence fee, but there will be costs associated with it.

Ed Turnbull

12th February 2020 at 9:53 am

Please explain the mechanism(s) by which your vision of the Apocalypse will come to pass. How will *commercial* free-to-air radio cease to exist if the license fee is abolished? Ditto commercial TV stations. What will be the causality between abolition of the telly tax and increases in mobile phone bills, ISP fees et al? Are you seriously suggesting that if the license fee is abolished the poor and the elderly will be bereft of *all* ‘free’ broadcast media?

If your comment is serious – rather than a poor attempt at sarcasm or trolling – please explain how you see your vision of Hell unfolding. Until you do I can only read your comment as a heap of absurd hysteria.

steve moxon

12th February 2020 at 11:34 am

Indeed. The main other recipient of the Boob’s poll tax is that other bastion of ‘identity politics’ totalitarianism, Channel 4. C4 News is even worse than the Boob’s. Any move to rid the airwaves of Cathy Newman can’t come soon enough.

Rick O’Shay

12th February 2020 at 11:55 am

Steve, you are so right about C4–its “news channel” is pure propaganda of the worst sort, worse I bet than North Korea’s state channel.

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