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Is Boris about to wimp out on the BBC licence fee?


IT all began so well.  On 14 December 14, less than 48 hours after his stunning election victory, Boris Johnson initiated moves to decriminalise non-payment of the coercive, regressive, household TV-signal receivability tax inaccurately known as the BBC ‘licence fee’.

It was hardly unexpected.  During the final week of the election campaign, Johnson had already condemned the iniquity of people being forced to fund the BBC despite having no wish to consume its output, and had raised the prospect at least of its outright abolition.

He correctly branded it a tax – as had the House of Lords as long ago as 2006 – and his chief strategist Dominic Cummings was reported to be working on proposals for alternative ways in which the corporation could fund itself.  Moreover, ministers had already been instructed to boycott the BBC Radio 4 Today programme over credible allegations of its consistent anti-Brexit and anti-Conservative biases.

In the ensuing days, the announcement received widespread praise and approval from voters and commentariat alike, by no means all of them slavish Tory supporters or Boris-worshippers.

A Savanta-ComRes poll found that BBC News was less trusted than ITV News on perceptions of impartiality and accuracy, that two-thirds of respondents believed the licence fee should be either scrapped or substantially reformed, and that half of all under-55s would rather receive news free from commercial broadcasters funded by advertising than pay for it via the BBC licence fee.

The BBC is trapped in a Remainer-cum-London bubble of its own making, wrote LBC broadcaster Iain Dale in The Daily Telegraph.  The licence fee days of a BBC that drips with anti-Brexit bias are numbered, declared Ross Clark in The Sun.

The ‘diversity’-obsessed BBC is now mortifyingly out of touch with modern Britain, chided Sherelle Jacobs, again in The Daily Telegraph.   The paying public think the BBC’s ‘values’ stink, observed former Labour and now SDP voter Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times.

This notable unanimity between the electorate and the punditocracy continued into the New Year, the apparently imminent decriminalisation of the licence fee given impetus, it seemed, by the announcement of the departure of the BBC’s Director-General.

Exit stage left, Lord Hall of the British Bias Corporation, remarked regular TCW contributor David Keighley. In the age of Netflix, the licence fee can’t be justified, averred Stephen Canning at the free-market championing

In the 21st century, we should be able to imagine life without the BBC licence fee, insisted the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore. The BBC is panicking at the public’s rejection of its left-‘liberal’ worldview, said Janet Daley, also in the Daily Telegraph.

Then came the Brexit Weekend of January 31 – February 1, when the BBC, far from demonstrating any acknowledgement of, much less contrition for, the precipitous decline in its audiences’ toleration of its coercive funding and its inherent institutional bias, simply doubled down on its contempt for its captive customers, as I described in detail a few days ago at TCW.  And promptly compounded it by announcing, on Monday February 3, an increase in its so-called ‘licence fee’.

Only a month before, a Public First poll found 75 per cent of respondents supporting abolition of the licence fee outright, and 60 per cent favouring the decriminalisation of non-payment, both indicating greater dissatisfaction with the BBC and willingness to see its funding reformed than in the Saventa-ComRes poll mentioned earlier.

Rarely can a set of political circumstances have been so propitious for a recently-elected government to implement a pre-election pledge for an easy win, to widespread approval.  So we waited for what seemed the inevitable announcement. 

And then something changed.  In the week after Brexit Weekend, a rather more hesitant, cautious, non-committal tone has started to emerge from certain Conservative Party figures and Government sources.

It was very noticeable during an extended interview on Talk Radio between host Mike Graham and John Whittingdale MP, the former Tory Culture Secretary.

By way of background, it’s worth recalling that Whittingdale was Culture Secretary at the time of the last BBC Charter Review in 2016; but that, having previously voiced some disobliging opinions about the BBC in general – anticipating its demise as ‘a tempting prospect’; criticising it for merely chasing ratings rather than producing new content and describing the licence fee as ‘worse than the poll tax’ – he was fired by Theresa May in her first Cabinet reshuffle after becoming PM.

His sacking came after it had mysteriously – or perhaps fortuitously – emerged earlier in 2016 that he had had a previous relationship with a sex worker, prompting an outpouring of Twitter joy by prominent BBC Leftie-luvvies.

His discussion with Mike Graham on Wednesday February 5 is very much more emollient and less critical than his previous opinions. Instead, he comes out with stuff like this: 

‘There are serious issues to address for the BBC, in that the broadcasting world is changing very rapidly, there is now a huge choice available which simply didn’t exist before.’

‘The BBC clearly needs to reconsider at this point what its place is and what change it needs to make.’

‘In terms of the licence, I mean all that’s being announced today is a consultation about whether or not to decriminalise, which is something that we looked at before, but which we said should be kept under review. But I think that in the longer term, there is a case for asking whether or not the licence is still an appropriate means of financing the BBC.’

By all means listen to the interview and study the transcript for yourself. But to me it suggests a party and government starting to row back from its implied promises, and almost leaving it to the BBC itself to decide its future funding method.

On the same day, current Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan – she who declined to stand again as MP for Loughborough because of the time pressures of politics on her private family life, but nevertheless accepted a peerage from Johnson so as to remain Culture Secretary for a mere few weeks but then adorn the Lords’ red benches for life – agreed that the BBC licence fee could indeed disappear.

But, er, not before 2027. In other words, for the remaining seven years of the current ten-year charter period, the funding model based on the coercive, regressive, household TV-signal receivability tax would be sacrosanct. Bizarrely, Morgan suggested that this showed the Government was ‘taking heed of public opinion’, before going on to echo Whittingdale by confirming that what was being launched was merely a ‘consultation’ on whether non-payment of the licence-fee should be decriminalised. Cue sound of ball landing in long grass.   

Three days later, Morgan was back, this time with the revelation that the licence fee might not in fact be scrapped outright, but replaced by a tiered level of access in which viewers could choose the level of services they required.  Significantly absent was any mention of nopayment being required from those who don’t wish to consume BBC output at all. Presumably, therefore, under this ‘tiered levels of access’ model, there would still be a minimum level payable anyway, so it would still be coercive.

Since Johnson won the election, there have been a few disturbing hints that he might be resiling from some of the positions he previously appeared to espouse robustly. Immigration reduction, HS2 and Huawei all come to mind, and that’s before the tentative ‘squeeze the rich’ Budget proposals trailed and rightly excoriated this past weekend as disincentivising and un-conservative.

Now it starts to look as if the Biased BBC and its iniquitous ‘licence fee’ might be going the same way. Is Boris about to wimp out on this one too?

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Michael St George
Michael St George
Michael St George is a freelance writer arguing for minimal-state, low-tax, free-markets minarchist-libertarianism. He tweets as @A_Liberty_Rebel. He is @LibertarianRebelon Parler.

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