Digital Britain: Lib Dems to oppose BBC licence fee top-slicing

by Stephen Tall on June 16, 2009

The Government has just published its Digital Britain report, detailing the UK government’s strategy for broadband and digital content. The Guardian has a quick summary of its conclusions:

• Illegal filesharing is “tantamount to theft”, repeat offenders will have their broadband connection reduced.
• Part of the BBC licence fee will be used to fund universal broadband access
• But also a levy will be placed on all fixed phone lines to help pay for universal broadband
• A small part of the licence fee digital switchover surplus will fund regional news pilots between now and 2013
• Talks between BBC and C4 are ongoing
• Martha Lane Fox to become “digital inclusion champion”

Don Foster, the Lib Dems’ shadow culture, media and sport secretary, has issued the following response, focusing on the ‘top-slicing’ of the BBC licence fee:

“Maintaining the strength and independence of the BBC is vital. Top slicing – in whatever language – sets a precedence that undermines that independence. What guarantees can we have that future governments will not take more money from the licence fee to fund their pet projects, especially when they are unhappy with what the BBC is doing?

“The plans for rolling out next generation broadband are a step in the right direction but rural areas may face a wait of nearly a decade to see the benefits. The idea of paying for it with a levy on fixed lines is broadly welcome. However, the Government must consider exemptions for pensioners and other less well off people.”

For years now, I’ve argued the BBC licence fee should be abolished. It’s the product of an analogue age which in the second half of the twentieth-century assured proper competition between the BBC and ITV (and, later, Channel 4 and Five), driving up standards across the board. There is a real risk, though, that in the next few years, the BBC licence fee will so skew the market in favour of ‘Auntie’ that there will be no competition at all – acclaimed, risk-taking, innovative telly will become the exclusive preserve of the BBC. If that happens the viewer will be the loser.

But in fact the argument is moving on. The argument about the BBC licence fee is fast becoming a sterile one. It’s doomed, the only real question being: how much longer will it last? Far more important, I would suggest, is addressing the two fundamental questions of what we want from our broadcast media:

(1) how do we ensure – through regulation and/or public funding – the continuation of an independent, impartial, universal broadcast news service; and
(2) how do we ensure a level-playing field for the BBC and commercial channels which promotes healthy competition resulting in good-quality television and radio across a range of genres: from sports, to arts and culture, to drama and comedy, and news and current affairs.

Too often the question of ‘whither the BBC licence fee’ becomes mired in a “I love/hate the BBC because…” quagmire in which favourite/meritricious BBC programmes are named to prove what good/bad value it all is. Yet the BBC licence fee is only a means to an end.

Originally its aim was to fund the introduction of an innovative service which has shaped and transformed society; after the founding of ITV, the licence fee ensured the market was balanced between public service and popular broadcasting. To expect that a universal poll tax funding a monpolostic organisation can continue to meet the expectations of a consumer society in a digital age is unrealistic.