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‘End of the BBC licence’: fudge or fix?


THE announcement by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries that the days of the BBC television licence are over has been greeted with both glee and horror. That reactions depend largely on which side of the political fence one sits rather tells its own story: metropolitan liberals are aghast while it’s celebration time in working-class areas and the shires.

The Twitterati have responded by recycling the usual memes: ‘At just 43p a day, the TV licence is great value’. A number have started to compile lists of great BBC programmes, largely hits of yesteryear such as Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army. For ordinary folks, however, it’s all about liberation from the corporation’s incessant woke ideology.

Before the public forum gets too carried away, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Conservatives have long since promised to clip the wings of a broadcaster that has morphed into a liberal-Left political campaigning party in all but name – a hardcore one at that. It never happened, until now. Coming as it has in the midst of a rancorous BBC-led campaign to oust Boris Johnson from Downing Street following the ‘party-gate’ revelations, the announcement, though welcome, must be viewed with some circumspection in terms of its timing.

It seems reasonable to wonder if Ms Dorries, a steadfast ally of the Prime Minister, is engaging in a game of quid pro quo with the broadcaster – ‘you whack Boris and we’ll whack you back’.If so, it instantly calls into question Dorries’s intentions. Ominously, while she has promised that the current licence fee announcement will be the ‘last’, she has also spoken about the need to find a ‘new funding formula’ for the broadcaster.

The answer to the funding ‘dilemma’ seems obvious enough: the BBC should be entirely self-funded – presumably via subscription in the mould of Netflix etc. Yet with former Culture Minister John Whittingdale proposing a halfway house between private subscription and government funding, the question may not be as clear cut as assumed. Let’s face it, it would not be out of character for a Tory to talk tough, but play much softer on the actual park.

Those who fear a fudge somewhere down the line may well have grounds. Whatever name it went by, any form of government financing as proposed by Whittingdale would simply be taxpayer funding by the back door. Back to square one. Besides, as a purely subscription service the broadcaster should thrive. Netflix has over 150million subscribers worldwide. For the allegedly far superior BBC, opportunity knocks, doesn’t it?

Herein lies an insoluble contradiction at the heart of the pro-licence fee lobby. The BBC, they claim, is loved and valued by the UK from Land’s End to John O’Groats. If that were true, switching to a subscription model would hardly affect its income stream; it might even increase it. To the vast majority of BBC consumers, whether it’s via licence, subscription or other means, the way they pay for the service is immaterial. The licence issue is a red herring.

All of which leads to another pro-licence talking point, one with which Ms Dorries will no doubt be assailed. Establishment blue-ticks illogically claim that the end of the licence fee will inevitably spell the end of the BBC itself. Not only is this claim evidence-free, it’s a non sequitur. Either the BBC is wildly popular and valued or it is not. If it is, there is no reason why it shouldn’t thrive under a subscription model. Why would BBC consumers desert the broadcaster just because its licence becomes subscription? Clearly, it’s an absurd claim but one repeated ad infinitum by loyalists.

Gas-lighting aside, there are vested interests aplenty rooting for the licence fee, led by the likes of £1.3million-a-year BBC presenter Gary Lineker. Ms Dorries will need to steel herself in the coming months.

Sooner or later, the BBC will attempt to blackmail the Culture Secretary by implying that ‘the baby will get it’ – that unable to fund itself via subscription despite its nationwide popularity, the corporation will have to cut back on programmes for children as well as  the elderly and just about every disadvantaged category one cares to mention.

Nadine Dorries will thus have to hold her nerve. The current Royal Charter, lest we forget, runs until December 31, 2027. Much can happen between then and now, not least a change of government. Above all else, it must be hoped that Conservative Party resolve on the BBC is not driven by the personal vendetta of an embattled Prime Minister, but is an acknowledgment of an ineluctable reality: the BBC is beyond reform. And has been for several decades.

The worry must be this: with six long years still left of its charter, how will a vengeful broadcaster behave in the interim whose reports can wreak havoc, even to the extent of attempting to topple governments?

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Stockton Heath
Stockton Heath
Stockton Heath is an author and critic who blogs at His latest book is a true crime thriller entitled ‘Imagining A Murder: the Cartland Case Revisited.’ His forthcoming book is to be entitled ‘Is that True or did you Hear it on the BBC?’

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