The BBC Licence Fee
16th Mar, 17
THE BBC LICENCE FEE.
The Government has just approved a rise in the BBC licence fee. This goes against UKIP policy. In our election manifesto of 2015, we in UKIP had a two-pronged policy on the licence fee.
The first element was to make non-payment a matter for the civil courts rather than the criminal ones after information emerged indicating a huge amount of magistrates court time was taken up dealing with licence fee evasion.
The second element was to review the cost of the licence fee with a view to reducing it. This was perfectly realistic given the BBC’s penchant for expanding into fringe and non-essential activities. But we were not for abolition.
As UKIP media spokesman I am actively thinking about what my recommendation will be for future policy. It looks like the next election is still a long way off, but it would be good to settle policy some way in advance of that.
There are certainly issues occurring at the moment which strengthen the arguments for abolishing the licence fee altogether. We have the rise of services likes Netflix making the idea of a poll tax for watching the television seem ever more obsolete.
More importantly, in my view, the concerns about the bias in the BBC’s news and current affairs output have become more acute. Arguably during the referendum very active rules about balance between the two sides kept this bias under a reasonable degree of control.
But since the Leave vote the degree of bias has, in my view, become very marked indeed. I wrote to the Corporation to complain recently after BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg’s latest programme on Brexit not only appeared to be biased against the Leave position but failed to include any UKIP voice whatever. I was not happy with the reply I received.
After the Brexit vote, I would have thought that BBC high-ups would have realised they had failed in their coverage of the EU over many years. More than half of licence fee payers voted to Leave and yet the Corporation almost always under-represented Leave voices over the past decade and more.
This was similar to the BBC’s failure to adequately cover arguments for sharply reducing immigration over many years.
With the other big global political story of 2016 - the election of President Trump in the US - I also felt (despite being no fan of Trump myself) that the vast majority of BBC correspondents reported from a lazy perspective that took it as read that viewers would agree that Hillary Clinton was more sensible and preferable. This again constituted clear bias.
In short, the BBC should have realised by now that the social and political attitudes prevalent in its newsrooms and among its correspondents do not fairly reflect the views of licence payers overall. And it should have made moves to correct this bias. Frankly, I have not seen any.
So should UKIP take the radical step of campaigning for licence fee abolition? Certainly, the BBC could move to funding via a mixture of subscription and advertising. There is a lot to be said for this. The BBC would have to sharpen up its act and think more carefully about how its output related to its audience. People infuriated by perceived bias would no longer have to subsidise the Corporation.
And in general terms scrapping the licence fee would be a significant tax cut on hard-pressed British families - putting them in charge of more of their own money.
But there are potential downsides too. The BBC remains a world famous British brand that is held in high esteem across the globe (President Trump notwithstanding) and for a future British government to downgrade it by scrapping the licence fee would be a very major call.
Also, the BBC has traditionally been a key ingredient in fostering national unity during major events such as royal weddings or big sporting occasions - even today a majority of people will choose BBC coverage at such times over its commercial rivals. Removing its bedrock status by scrapping the licence fee could lead to a further atomising of our society.
But the biggest potential downside of scrapping the licence fee altogether is, in my view, the potential impact on other broadcasters. Sky would suddenly have a very large new opponent in the market for subscription and ITV would face the same in the advertising market. Revenues for both could be expected to fall significantly as a result.
Ultimately this could undermine programme quality overall and lead to an actual loss of variety and choice (although on the other hand there is an argument that it could pep up everyone's performance).
At the moment I am of the view that were the BBC to set out a credible plan to deal with political bias I could be persuaded to support continuation of the licence fee (albeit at a significantly lower level than at present). But I see no such plan, nor even an acknowledgment that bias in favour of a metropolitan liberal-Left outlook is a major problem. And I am not prepared to wait for much longer.
So in my book the clock is ticking on the licence fee. I also know that in the eyes of many UKIP members its time has already run out. In other words, watch this space.