Luke Johnson: The BBC licence fee must soon be scrapped

Public service broadcasting is a tired old myth, says the former chair of Channel 4.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 11 Sep 2014

A decade after becoming chair of Channel 4, I am belatedly coming to the conclusion that the whole concept of public service broadcasting is a convenient fiction that suits certain vested interests in the media and cultural industries.

In essence, it supposedly means TV and radio programmes that 'educate, inform and entertain', in Lord Reith's famous phrase, which would not be provided by the commercial sector. To this has been added the idea that public service TV should be creative and innovative. But increasingly the private sector can match or surpass the quality and diversity of the public service output of the subsidised players.

There are now over 50 US channels commissioning original TV drama. The best, like True Detective, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, are shown here and are frequently superior to anything produced domestically. Even Downton Abbey, our most successful period drama - a niche which is considered a British strength, is commissioned by ITV, which effectively receives no subsidy.

Meanwhile, Sky News gives BBC News a serious run for its money. It is a considerably more comprehensive operation than poor old ITN, which is bedevilled by a pension deficit and divided ownership. In fact, Murdoch, principal owner of Sky, knows that TV news can be highly lucrative - his Fox News is one of the most profitable divisions of his business empire.

Serious documentaries, supposedly a core genre within any public service remit, are enjoying a sustained revival as feature-length films and many are available online. Most of the traditional documentary slots on the BBC such as Panorama have withered.

The vast bulk of what audiences watch on BBC - soaps, reality TV, talent shows, quizzes and the like - cannot possibly be seen as public service output. Neither can Radio 1 and 2, which pull in most of the listeners, and mainly play pop music, which commercial radio does equally well.

Although the BBC is the principal producer of new comedy, I struggle to see this strand as a real purpose of a public service mission. Even worthy stations such as Radio 3 attract a fraction of the listeners that Classic FM enjoys - a free market solution that costs the public nothing.

The BBC employs the phrase public service broadcasting endlessly to justify the £145.50 regressive tax it calls the TV licence fee. It is so embarrassed by the whole grubby business of collecting the £3.6bn tithe that it contracts it out, mainly to Capita.

In 2012, 180,000 people appeared in court on criminal charges of evading the licence fee - a 10th of all court cases. Between January 2011 and March 2013, 107 people went to jail for non-payment of fines arising from TV licence offences.

ITV likes the system because its main competitor doesn't show advertising. MPs like the BBC because BBC local radio features them. Ministers slavishly support the BBC because they appear on Newsnight and the Today programme. The vanity of politicians can never be underestimated.

But the BBC's purpose rests on a myth. Its audience is increasingly elderly, with the median age of BBC1 and BBC2 viewers being 59 and 60 respectively. In effect, this means it is only important to a quarter of the population - yet every household with a TV must pay for it.

Soon the licence fee must be scrapped - or distributed in such a way that the BBC's monopoly over cash subsidy for TV is ended.

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Recently, the All Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse published a series of recommendations to stem what it described as a 'pandemic' of alcoholism. Among its suggestions were further restrictions on the marketing of booze, minimum pricing of alcohol, drinks carrying health warnings, and cutting the drink-drive limit. The usual chorus from the medical do-gooders chimed in supporting these moves.

To me such initiatives are all evidence of a nanny state that has little trust in the judgement of its citizens, and condescends to them with ever more rules and laws. I have direct personal experience of problem drinkers, have read about the subject widely, and even served as chairman of an addiction charity for a while. I do not minimise the health risks of the demon drink. But treating the public like infants is not the answer.

Moreover, the problem is receding. Of course, this inconvenient fact does not suit the puritanical interests who would love to see us all become teetotal. Overall alcohol sales are down over 20% since 2004 and continue to decline every year. Binge drinking, the monster which took over Britain's town centres in the 1990s, is estimated to have fallen far more - by perhaps as much as half from its peak. Over 80% of drinkers consume alcohol well within the advised limits.

A recent book, Cultural Wars and Moral Panic by Paul Chase, describes the campaigning by anti-alcohol zealots and rehearses the arguments over the subject well.

Endless statistics, like the apparent £21bn cost of alcohol abuse, are trotted out ad nauseum by the academics and activists who would ideally ban alcohol completely. They fail to mention the jobs, exports and pleasure that drink provides. Beer, wine and spirits are a core element of our culture, and we should have confidence in the ability of ordinary citizens to decide how to run their own lives. Or perhaps the prohibitionists would prefer we modelled British society on Saudi Arabia?

- Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners.

Follow him on Twitter: @LukeJohnsonRCP.

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