As we begin to approach the renewal at the end of 2017 of the royal charter which constitutes the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a nascent debate has developed concerning the future of the BBC, and in particular the manner in which it is funded.
Under the current arrangements of the royal charter, the BBC is funded by the revenue raised by television licence fees, which are required for households to legally watch and record live television broadcasts of any kind, and through any medium, including the Internet. Households must renew their licence fee on an annual basis, currently costing each household approximately £145.50 annually. This manner of funding was seen to be appropriate by the government of the time, when the BBC was only beginning to develop and few, if any, could imagine it would expand into the extensive and world-renowned media organisation that it is today.
It is important to note that the rise of the web has transformed the media landscape. Websites such as YouTube have cultivated entirely new styles of entertainment and information consumption, while services such as Netflix have conceived of new ways to deliver traditional television programmes and films. Platforms such as Ustream and Twitch.tv have also produced a plethora of live content available on the web. In today’s media world that is increasingly dominated by the web, the very concept of a television licence fee has become increasingly anachronistic, and a consensus is beginning to emerge that recognises this.
There is a conspicuous absence of consensus, however, concerning what might take the place of the licence fee. Unsurprisingly, numerous commentators have proposed rather neoliberal solutions to the future of the BBC’s funding. The most notable of these suggestions have been the introduction of a subscription service, or the introduction of advertising to the BBC’s television channels and websites. As you might imagine, some have proffered the nuclear option of privatisation, though thankfully this particular idea does not appear to have gained any traction.
The ideal solution, however, would be for the BBC to become funded through general taxation, as this would both be the most equitable funding arrangement, and secure the core purpose and value of the BBC.
In simple terms, the television licence fee is essentially a form of tax, one that is both regressive and flat. An individual living on the minimum wage is required to contribute the same amount to access BBC television as a more affluent individual. The licence fee is also inequitable in the sense that the BBC is a vital public service which should be accessible to everyone, regardless of the amount they have been able to contribute in taxes, or at a more fundamental level, their wealth.
The core purpose and value of the BBC is to provide a platform upon which world-class entertainment, documentaries, analysis, and journalism are able to prosper in an environment which is protected from the often pernicious effects of commercialism which affect private media. In particular, the BBC’s duty in the areas of analysis and journalism are an invaluable public service not only for British citizens, but for people across the world, who know that in the BBC they have access to a highly reliable, valuable, impartial, and some might say unparalleled, analysis of the world around them.
Therefore, as we begin to approach the renewal of the royal charter in 2017, we must seek to bring the funding arrangements of the BBC into the twenty-first century in an equitable manner. This should take the form of the BBC deriving its funding principally from general taxation, with the television licence fee being abolished. Ideally, this reform should be conducted in conjunction with wider efforts to transform the tax system into a more progressive form. Only in this way will we be able to maintain the essential core purpose and value of the BBC, and therein enable it to continue to serve the public interest as it has done so excellently for so long.