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David Keighley: The BBC licence fee would make Dick Turpin blush. Mass highway robbery enforced by the State


The BBC’s close friends in the liberal establishment become curiously reactionary and small ‘c’ conservative on matters relating to the Corporation’s finances.

As the Government considers alternative, fairer  financing – such as subscription – to reflect new media realities, they are now circling the wagons to defend the licence fee at all or any cost.

That money, of course, totalling some £3.5bn a year, funds a vast propaganda machine that favours causes such as ensuring that comedians in BBC programmes have a platform to brand UKIP supporters as racist,  as Nigel Farage has pointed out this week.

It also pays for massive and continued BBC empire-building. In an era of public spending restraint – partly as a legacy of the spend-and-disregard-the-consequences Blair era – the Corporation has opened lavish new HQ premises in London, Salford and Glasgow.

And so great and disproportionate is the Corporation’s pecuniary firepower that, as Home Secretary Theresa May has pointed out, it has been a significant factor in the demise of much regional and local journalism, and has stymied genuine innovation in the web arena.

As the latest episode in the licence-fee battle, Roy Greenslade, the main media blogger of the BBC house journal The Guardian, has launched a withering attack on John Whittingdale, chair of the House of Commons Media, Culture and Sport Committee.

Whittingdale’s crime?

He has stated the obvious and said the licence fee is grossly unfair. He points out that for hard-up families, the £145.50 a year (that must be paid if a household watches any so-called ‘freeview’ television at all) is disproportionately expensive, akin to, if not worse than, a poll tax. He also had the temerity to suggest that in the multi-media age, new forms of funding for the BBC should be found because the licence fee is out-of-step with current media realities.

Greenslade’s petulant response is that this is nonsense. In his article, he airily skims over the fact that 60 people are sent to jail each year for not paying the fee (I wonder if he’s asked them if they agree it’s not important?), and then risibly claims, through a link to a tendentious article by a like-minded right-on organisation called the Media Reform Coalition, that those who are proposing change are all right-wing agitators such as the Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen who, MRC allege, uses specious arguments to support his case, including unsupported allegations about BBC bias.

From this quicksand base, Greenslade concludes that those who are criminalised and fined for not-paying the licence fee are actually probably not hard-up at all, they are most likely to be agitators like Bridgen with a sinister, reactionary agenda.

How very, very Guardian to dismiss when it suits them with such crashing disregard for the facts the problems of the poor.

In reality, the statistics about the licence fee are horrendous. To suggest that non-payment is the result of a right-wing conspiracy is utter nonsense. It is a state-endorsed form of mass intrusion with all the subtlety of Dick Turpin’s ‘stand and deliver’.

  • More than 400,000 homes every year are entered each year by licence-fee collectors. A major irony here is apparently totally lost on Greenslade. He works for a newspaper that has set itself up as the arch-enemy of any state surveillance or snooping.
  • A  BBC report here says that prosecutions for non-payment of the licence fee have risen from 164,000 to 182,000 a year. That’s 500 new criminal convictions every day.
  • The workload involved accounts for a staggering 12 per cent of all the cases that go through the magistrates courts each year.

According to my magistrate friends, most are households who are at the bottom of the social heap. Almost 66 per cent of prosecutions are against women, and typically these are single mums to whom an appearance in court is a mark of shame in already financially heavily-pressured lives. Andrew Bridgen, when assembling the case against the licence fee, obtained this quote from one of the young mothers who had been prosecuted:

“I remember being so distressed but not being able to turn to anyone as that would mean telling them what I had done……. A couple of days before the case was heard, I was admitted to hospital…. I was found guilty and fined. When I applied for my first job, I declared my conviction and was asked about it at the interview. I felt so humiliated”.

Greenslade’s spurious defence is nonsense. This is gross injustice stemming from a totally outdated tax that is in urgent need of Augean reform.

Many years ago, as a young BBC publicist, I was assigned to the so-called ’special projects unit’, a shadowy department round the corner from Broadcasting House in a splendid house in Cavendish Place.  Its job  was to defend the licence fee – to explain to the public how the money was spent and why it was ‘fair’.

Back then, when there was no satellite/internet broadcasting, and the BBC provided two of the four TV channels, together with the bulk of radio services, it was relatively logical that this was the price of entry. Almost thirty years on, with 500 channels, and new entrants to the market almost every day, it makes no sense at all, even before its regressive and punitive impact on the poor is taken into account.

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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