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.

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*Illegal filesharing is “tantamount to theft”, repeat offenders will have their broadband connection reduced.

Aww, it’s so sweet. It’s like they don’t know about uTorrent’s encryption methods.

by Huw Dawson on June 16, 2009 at 6:07 pm. Reply #

I agree both with Don Foster that diverting licence-fee money to pay for broadband is wrong, and with Stephen that the licence fee itself is not an effective instrument. But the point of the summary that most concerned me was this (emphasis added):

Illegal filesharing is “tantamount to theft”, repeat offenders will have their broadband connection reduced.

Is the government proposing to cut people’s internet access without due process? Such a proposal is being batted about in Brussels at the moment (the European Parliament has rejected it repeatedly but it keeps getting sent back). Removal of internet access on a “three strikes and you’re out” basis was the core of the HADOPI law recently passed in France. But the French Constitutional Court has very rightly struck down the part of the law allowing for internet access to be cut off without a court judgement, on the grounds that access to the Internet is part of freedom of expression and that such steps cannot be taken except by a judge.

Is our government proposing a similar law, or would they only act after a court conviction?

by Niklas Smith on June 16, 2009 at 6:08 pm. Reply #

I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again. It is not the government’s place to decide on what can be accessed on the internet, or to pander to the interests of those who hide being (c) signs because their business is otherwise not viable.

Calls for copyright law changes and a pledge to leave the internet alone from the Lib Dems would be a clear policy shift that would attract millions of young internet users to the party. Is it not the same argument that the BBC and the internet should remain independent of government pledges?

by Huw Dawson on June 16, 2009 at 6:13 pm. Reply #

“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”

As I understand it, your argument is thatiIn the past, the BBC made good TV programmes funded by the license fee, while ITV made (some) good TV programmes funded by advertising. Now there are more channels, and a smaller total TV audience thanks to the internet, there’s a lot less advertising money to go round. Therefore only the BBC with their licence fee money can afford to make good TV.

So far, I can’t argue with any of this. I just fail to see how removing the licence fee from the BBC is going to improve the situation.

by Mark on June 16, 2009 at 6:39 pm. Reply #

“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.”

But it’s not a “tax”. If you don’t want to watch tv, you don’t pay. That’s not a tax.

As for what the tv licence costs, considering that you have to pay every time you go to the cinema, buy a dvd or whatever (pirates aside), it’s actually ok value for money. So paying to watch tv is not that unjust. What then has to be worked out, is whether that money should go to a single organization like the BBC, or be spread about by giving some to Channel 4 and ITV etc. And I think it should all go to the BBC, since the entire point of the licence fee, is to fund high quality, unprofitable programming. You only need one company to do that.

As for it being “unrealistic” in this “digital age”, I disagree. Since digital tv first came about, the BBC has been the one making most of the running. BBC3, BB4 etc. Iplayer. All of these have been around for some time, and there’s no reason why they won’t still be successful in the future.

by Alex on June 17, 2009 at 12:48 am. Reply #

Alex, that is no longer true. If you have a 3g phone or an internet connection you now need a tv licence. This is why the BBC are now “broadcasting” on just about every net related device you can buy. There is no longer the escape of not having a tv tuner.

Anyway the tv licence top slicing is hiding the real issue of “clamping down on peer to peer file sharing”. First off the consultation paper fails completely to understand the technology, assuming the bit torrent protocol (which is what it is going for) is used only for nefarious purposes. Secondly every participant in the drafting of that paper is an Industry insider. No consumer groups were represented. Nor were any privacy or human rights issues taken into account as the paper admits.

The Government White Paper on “Digital Britain” is nothing more than protecting an Industry that wants to retain a dead model of marketing.

Lib Dems wake up – sod the BBC, look at the real issue.

by TheBigotBasher on June 17, 2009 at 2:08 am. Reply #

By the way the same lobby groups that helped frame that consultative paper are the same people that ensured the )c) laws of this Country meant that your VRC or PVR can still be confiscated.

We do not recognise time-shifting or media shifting in this Country.

by TheBigotBasher on June 17, 2009 at 2:13 am. Reply #

Firstly, not true about the internet connection. If you only watch programmes on iPlayer, then you don’t need a licence – it’s only if you watch the live streams.

The thing about abolishing the licence fee is that you need to decide the direction the BBC is going to take and how it will be funded in the future. If you go down the advertising route, then you will effectively be unleashing a ready-made, mass-market competitor against other advertiser-funded channels such as ITV, Five and the Virgin Media channels, most (if not all) of which are struggling financially at the moment. It would also still create an immediate imbalance in the market – if you were an advertiser, where would you prefer to place your ads – half way through EastEnders or a rerun of CSI? Much as I’m a fan of CSI, it doesn’t get the viewers EastEnders does.

If you went down the PBS-style route of voluntary fundraising, that would have a direct effect on programme budgets resulting in cutbacks, format sales or simple axing of programmes. Do you really want to try to explain on the doorstep why you support a policy which could result in the end of Casualty or Strictly, for example? Also, fundraising is even more susceptible to fluctuations in the economy than advertising – just ask any charity at the moment.

The licence fee also keeps up quality generally. ITV’s problem at the moment is not that it can’t produce programmes people want to watch – Britain’s Got Talent and Harry Hill being examples of that – but that it can’t afford the quality or innovation, hence the axing of the likes of Primeval. The licence fee, by giving a guaranteed amount to the BBC, enables this to happen.

The licence fee is designed to keep the BBC at the forefront of world broadcasting. Losing it will mean that we would effectively become another backwater along the lines of most European countries. Is that really where we want to go?

by KL on June 17, 2009 at 8:58 am. Reply #

My main worry is funding the important educational and cultural programming that would not exist in a purely commercial arrangement. Just compare the BBC News website, their Russian, Farsi and Pashto news services, their programmes on culture and history etc to any of their competitors to see what I mean.

Public services broadcasting is important. We should support it just as we do cheap access to museums, free manifestos to each voter etc. Civic education is liberal.

by Simon R. on June 17, 2009 at 3:20 pm. Reply #

“But it’s not a “tax”. If you don’t want to watch tv, you don’t pay. That’s not a tax.”

Strictly speaking it is a “Duty”, I think, as in cigarette duty and alcohol duty, but only the most pedantic (and perhaps Liberal Bureaucracy) would bother to distinguish.

Two facts strike me:

1) The government considers a television to be an essential (and even subsidises elderly people so that they can own one), but nonetheless taxes it;

2) The BBC is generally favoured by the middle classes, while the pooer classes tend to favour ITV and CH 5, as well as satillite TV, which makes it a massive subsidy paid by poor people for the benefit of their richer neighbours.

Frankly, I don’t see why we don’t just do away with the whole thing. The BBC could be trimmed down to one or two TV channels that were paid for by subscription (set, at least at first, at the equivalent of today’s licence fee, but paid on a voluntary basis).

by Tom Papworth on June 17, 2009 at 11:26 pm. Reply #

“the entire point of the licence fee, is to fund high quality, unprofitable programming”

Like Eastenders?

And The Apprentice, because as we know Alan Sugar has never been able to sell a product on a for-profit basis.

Homes Under the Hammer and Houseswap as a double bill from 10am to noon, followed by a 2 hour double bill of Cash in the Attic and Bargain Hunt clearly serves a social purpose, as it saves the NHS from treating all those poor unemployed who’d go mad without Auntie’s quality programming.

Can we please take the rose-tinted specs off for just one minute?

by Tom Papworth on June 17, 2009 at 11:33 pm. Reply #

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