Labour’s response to the BBC license debate

The Tories have gotton so excited about the idea of decriminalising the BBC license fee, that it’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that they see this as an opportunity to do down the national broadcaster. Labour needs to have a response, or else the debate will be guided by those who wish to see television controlled by press barons and oligarchs.

Apparently 10% of cases before the magistrates’ courts are for evasion of the license fee. On the face of it this sounds extraordinary, but before we accept this figure on face value, we should first recognise that it came from the Magistrates Association, a body with a history empire building.

In recent years they have campaigned for fewer cases to be sent up to the crown court for sentencing, for themselves and not the police to give cautions to offenders, and for the abolition of fixed penalty notices, in order that they can have a monopoly over fines.

In truth, the majority of license fee business conducted by magistrates’ courts is to issue letters threatening those who have not paid. Those who don’t pay are summonsed and punished. They are not entitled to legal aid and they rarely go to trial. For those readers who remember “The Young Ones”, a plug cable dangling from the mouth of a suspect could be potential evidence, but it is rare for a magistrate to provide a search warrant.

The actual costs are nowhere near 10% of the total budget for magistrates’ courts, and a study would be likely to discover that the true cost is below 1%, and probably a fraction of that. If the BBC had to rely on civil actions through the county court, then the BBC would have to pay £25 for each initial claim and the accused would be able to ignore the case if they were unconcerned with their credit rating.

However, there is a bigger issue at stake in our multiplatform world. Since my smart phone can play live TV over the internet, the law says that I should have a license for my phone, even if I don’t watch TV on it. The BBC doesn’t pursue this line, but they do have contradictions such as allowing their programs to be viewed for free on the internet while charging people to watch on a TV set.

It also strikes me as odd that the justification of the license fee sometimes doesn’t work at all. As a former video editor of BBC news, I’d say that Sky News is a better channel, but everyone watches the BBC because they have no adverts. So the license fee promotes the lesser quality product. Nor is there much diversity. Al Jazeera has demonstrated that innovation and depth can be created by a desire to occupy niches, but this channel comes from abroad.

In a small territory such as the UK, quality television news cannot be done without financial support, but we would be better off if each of our three main news providers received an equal subsidy in return for a distinct offer. I would suggest that the BBC concentrates on international, Sky on business/economics, and ITN on entertainment.

The previous strategy to justify the license fee was to occupy each section of the media in order that the whole population is served by the BBC. That’s why there are so many channels and why the website became so huge. The problem is that as media becomes increasingly diverse, the BBC cannot keep up.

The big questions will have to be answered before charter renewal in 2020. In my view, advertising is an important opportunity for revenue streams. It may be better to start to introduce advertising now, than wait till 2020, as we would have better control over the outcome if we were able to measure the effect over a period of time. However, the most important thing for the Labour leadership is to avoid a three year policy review that shunts the issue into the shadows. We need Labour to make contributions on a regular basis and to form the consensus as we go along.

If the BBC were privatised tomorrow, then the effect would be to return television to a London-centric, London employed institution. Bristol would continue to make nature programs because they are unique, but the Salford studios would close immediately. We want the BBC to continue to be a national broadcaster, but we need to be a part of the debate if we want to shape this decision.

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