TV licence: what are the pros and cons?
As streaming increases and enforcement declines fewer people are paying up
New figures have revealed that thousands of households are cancelling their TV licences every month, as questions increase about how the BBC should be funded.
The Times reports that figures obtained under a freedom of information request show the number of TV licences bought in the UK fell by 82,000 in the five months to March. While 25.6m homes had TV licences in November, the figure has now fallen to 25.5m.
The number of licences issued had been growing for a decade because of a rising population and a crackdown of fee evasion, but in the past two years it has dropped significantly.
“The latest figures support anecdotal evidence that younger viewers in particular are ditching the BBC in favour of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+,” The Times says.
In January, Gary Lineker, the BBC’s highest-paid star, questioned the future of the £157.50 annual licence fee, describing it as the broadcaster’s “fundamental problem”. He also suggested that the compulsory fee should be made voluntary.
So what are the arguments for and against the payment?
The BBC, as a result of its licence-payer-funded financial structure, has no need for third-party commercial advertising to generate revenue, and thus has remained advert-free since its inception. This is perhaps the most commonly cited benefit of the TV licence.
In 2016, BBC director-general Tony Hall made a pledge that the BBC “will never run adverts” in the UK as it would “harm the country’s broader broadcasting and news ecosystem”.
“We have a good ecology in this country, ITV and Channel 4 are doing public service broadcasting but funded by ads, and Sky has subscribers. That kind of works and I don’t think it is for us to get into the advertising market,” he said.
The Guardian published an editorial in 2018 that called the current era of BBC television a “bonanza time for audiences” in which there has never been “so much high-quality material available to watch, whenever we like”.
However, the piece adds that our “voracious appetite for content” should not “blind us to the preciousness of the BBC”, which has “taken artistic risks to create brilliant, radical and innovative work that would be in the interests of no profit-driven private company”.
During a debate on the licence fee in Parliament last year, the Conservative MP for Solihull, Julian Knight, said that “when one travels around the world and sees other TV, radio and media offerings, one sees that the BBC is absolutely first-class”.
According to the BBC, the licence fee “allows it to run a wide range of popular public services for everyone, free of adverts and independent of advertisers, shareholders or political interests” which may influence its editorial stance.
Furthermore, the licence fee also allows the broadcaster to “remain independent and distanced from government initiatives, campaigners, charities and their agendas, no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial”, the BBC guidelines state.
Informing the public
Some observers believe that the BBC is a vital tool in ensuring that everyone in the UK is granted access to fair, unbiased news.
Sirena Bergman writes in The Independent that “access to impartial information is crucial to the democratic process”, adding that a media organisation free of third-party interests will “at least be perceived as more reliable than the for-profit alternatives”.
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The complaint that it is undemocratic to force people to pay for a service they either don’t use very often or do not agree with politically is a common one.
“When you can stream a library of millions of shows on a laptop or tablet, it feels a bit backwards to sit down and subject yourself to a TV schedule which someone else has decided for you,” writes George Harrison in The Sun. “The fact that, by default, everyone is forced to pay for the BBC fuels its Europhile tendencies by providing it with no incentive to actually engage with British people - or produce any decent shows for that matter.”
Millions are now cancelling their licence fees as a result of this shift to online media, the paper adds.
In 2018, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn floated the idea that the BBC should begin allowing licence-fee payers to elect board members of the national broadcaster, PoliticsHome reports. Currently, they are appointed from within.
“One proposal would simultaneously reduce government political influence on the BBC while empowering its workforce and licence fee payers,” he said. “That would see some elections of places to the BBC Board, for example of executive directors by staff and non-executive directors by licence fee payers.”
Some critics have expressed concerns over the lack of BBC funding for minority languages and cultures of the UK.
Last year, 68-year-old Eiris Llywelyn was arrested after she was revealed to be one of a group of around 80 people in Wales who had stopped paying their TV licence over a lack of representation of Welsh culture by the BBC.
The non-payment campaign has been led by the language campaign group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, which, according to The Guardian, believes that Wales is “being ill-served by the media to the detriment of the Welsh language and the country’s democracy and culture”.
The Independent’s Bergman posits that the licence fee should still be “scrapped in favour of a form of progressive taxation, whereby a percentage of your income tax relative to your earnings goes directly into the coffers of the BBC”.
“The reason we have a licence fee system instead is because the British public struggles to wrap its head around the concept of paying more for something you might use less for the benefit of society as a whole, even though this is the basis of a welfare state which we purport to value in this country,” she adds.
Too expensive for viewers
Writing for BT News in 2017, Anna Jordan says that many people around the UK “can’t afford to pay the £145.50 [now £154.50] TV licence fee”, and that the fines associated with not paying the fee are also far too high.
“Most licence fee fines come in at £150-£200,” Jordan adds. “But for those on low incomes who are most likely to be done for licence fee evasion this is an unpayable charge.”
Too expensive for BBC
LoveMoney says that the current system of licence collection is inefficient and far too costly for a publicly funded institution. “It costs a ludicrous amount in admin... which could easily be saved by using a different funding model,” the site adds. “Numbers from 2016 showed that £101 million out of £3.7 billion went towards ‘licence fee collection’.”
But The Guardian adds that the biggest drain on the corporation is that “it must carry the cost of free licences to the over-75s”, which will cost the BBC £750m a year if it is not abolished. The BBC currently spends only around £2.5bn on programming each year, meaning licence fee exemptions are extremely costly.
Too old fashioned
The BBC’s former political correspondent says the licence fee has become “increasingly out of date”. John Sergeant says “the case for the licence fee, a form of poll tax, has been steadily eroded” by competitors like Netflix and Amazon.