House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee inquiry into BBC future funding
I have been informally researching and commenting on Broadcasting for many, many years. In particular, I have always taken an interest in BBC funding, and the questions around the TV Licence and its enforcement. I have supported several different community groups with legal and practical analysis of Licence Fee enforcement. I have also supported many individuals with their TV Licence evasion cases and more generally to help them address their fears and concerns that arise from the BBC’s communications on the matter.
It seems likely that the current move away from traditional linear broadcasters and towards streaming will continue. The streamers' quality of content, the style of presentation and their value for money seem to be attractive to the UK Public. This in itself is placing stress upon the outdated TV Licence model (of BBC funding), because these services often do not require a TV Licence to use them. (Indeed, the BBC operates a streaming service UKTV Player that doesn’t require a Licence to use it).
It remains to be seen whether there will be further technical innovations that will bridge the gap between traditional broadcasters and streamers such that, say, slots for News can be introduced as suggestions into streaming output. There is also likely to be further progress to be made in the development of content collation services that can make sense of what is fast becoming a bewildering array of different services.
In the burgeoning marketplace for video content, it is hard not to begin to view the purpose of a national broadcaster as a filler of gaps. Whilst those gaps may comprise gaps in content provision, gaps between audiences, and gaps of affordability, I think it is hard to justify the universal TV Licence and its draconian enforcement in the context of the ever-decreasing uniqueness and universality of the BBC's content.
There often exist multiple examples within the commercial domain of largely identical content to the BBC's and the only limitations of the commercial content are findability and affordability. In that context, findability is a question of (better) information provision, and affordability is not something that the BBC should seek to chase with its allegedly limited resources. Neither of these purposes point towards a premium, prestige broadcaster of all things to all people.
My primary priority and principle for the funding of the BBC is the reform of the draconian and outdated enforcement methodology of the BBC's alter-ego TV Licensing. That methodology would appear to make no sense other than as a self-contradictory exercise in creating fear and conflict on the nation's doorsteps.
Government must begin to be professionally curious about TV Licensing for the protection of the Public, and to avoid on-going reputational damage to the BBC. In particular, it should no longer be an option to take assurances from the BBC as to its utility, necessity and/or efficiency without proper scrutiny. There should be no law enforcement without scrutiny and accountability.
The essential issue is that the BBC seems to believe that it has a duty to enforce the Licence (often through questionable means), and at the very same time citizens are not under a general duty to co-operate. Whilst this may (possibly) reflect a superficial reading of relevant law, it doesn't make sense practically. It creates a two-tier population in which those "in the know" can simply dismiss TV Licensing, whilst those unfortunate enough to believe its theatrical and inflammatory communications can find themselves being called upon to justify themselves and prove their innocence of offences. I imagine that the BBC would defend its model in terms of it being “to bring the adversarial model of law to the nation’s doorsteps”, but I remain unconvinced that this approach can ever be justified.
Any new funding model must address the manifest shortcomings of the TV Licence and should not require draconian door-to-door enforcement. It should be fair and transparent, should not require mass prosecutions, should not exhibit grotesque gender bias in prosecutions, should be related to ability to pay, and should retain and improve the ability to opt-out for reasons of affordability and/or personal choice.
Ultimately, the country must decide what we want from the BBC in the modern era where its erstwhile gravity and uniqueness are all but eroded for a large segment of the population. The market for English-language, and often UK-produced content of high quality is expanding, and the future BBC could provide a useful role in promoting more universal access to that content, together with basic public service elements. This kind of service could be funded by a much reduced subscription fee administered by replacing the existing draconian enforcement with electronic conditional access.
The other alternative would be to keep the BBC largely as it is, and simply move to conditional access as a way of bringing its funding into the 21st century (indeed, into the 20th century). The present Licence arrangement is anachronistic and fundamentally unsustainable, as the migration of audiences away from linear viewing provides a double-hit to the BBC's resources - affecting both revenue and the cost of enforcement. In many ways, this represents a bigger risk to the future of the BBC.
Fundamentally, decisions need to be made now in order to prevent the slow decline of the BBC described above.
Ideally, the criteria will be reduced down to a set of basic choices that the Public could be asked to give their views on. This needs to be a true mass consultation, rather than the gossip of interested parties that tends to form such consultations presently. If the Public cannot be relied upon to shape "their" BBC, then it suggests that perhaps the public interest and concern simply isn't there, and the notion of a mass-audience “our” BBC cannot be sustained.
Technically, the BBC must set in place the necessary plans to move to conditional access. For some platforms, this will simply be a case of agreeing the necessary deals and protocols with commercial platform providers. For other platforms, a more involved solution is required.
For example, with Freeview, a choice needs to be made between issuing new hardware and creating an alternate ad-funded channel or channels for this platform. Both options present pros and cons, although the ad-funded route would present an unprecedented choice to viewers, enabling them to choose the style of their participation with the BBC's services on an individual household basis.
The Government should act to build-out its strategic view from the firm position it has already stated. In particular, it must not be distracted from the task of dismantling the outdated, unpopular and unfair TV Licence by industry vested interests. It should be wary of any arguments that the “end justifies the means” in regards to the TV Licence, when the means are quite unsavoury in places, and as an overall concept.
In the medium-term, it's possible that the Government will need to encourage progress in the right direction by placing interim constraints upon the TV Licence system - notably that it must act and communicate transparently, and that prosecutions must cease or be scaled-back substantially.