Yes, the BBC licence fee is doomed. The interesting question is what happens when it’s gone?

by Stephen Tall on November 12, 2012

I first outed myself as opposed to the BBC licence fee six years ago. I still am.

But the debate interests me less these days because it’s inevitable the licence fee’s days are numbered: a regressive poll tax to subsidise the viewing pleasure of the middle-classes will not last forever.

What interests me more is what will happen when it goes. It’s a question I started thinking about in 2009:

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.