The BBC Dines Out on Those Who Can’t

BY EFFIE DEANS

Who should pay for BBC TV programmes? Should it be those who watch them or everybody who owns a TV? I can remember when there were only three channels. If you owned a TV in Britain, you almost certainly watched quite a lot of BBC programmes or at least listened to the radio. The number of people who only watched ITV must have been small. So, there was no particular injustice in taxing TV ownership. Some people might have preferred that the BBC was also funded by advertising, but it was also possible to reasonably argue the case for public service broadcasting funded by taxation. The BBC when I was young was genuinely different from ITV.  That distinctiveness was worth paying taxes for. But the BBC now is just ITV without commercials.

It would be possible to fund the BBC out of general taxation in the same way that we fund the NHS or the Army. This would be a bit unfair on those who don’t watch TV, but this is no different in principle from those who don’t have children to send to school or those who don’t get sick and need to see a doctor. Around 95% of the British public owns a TV. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to fund the BBC from taxation rather than go to the bother of taxing TV ownership with all of the difficulties involved in collecting that tax?

There might have been a case for this when there were only two or three channels, but since the introduction of subscription TV in Britain we have been able to pay for what we want to watch.  Why shouldn’t this model apply to the BBC too? It is here that we need to think about taxation.

To use an analogy:

Conservatism is the idea that if a group of us go to a restaurant we each pay for the food.

Socialism is the idea that we all pay taxes so the state can give us free restaurants.

The BBC likewise wants those who don’t eat in the restaurant to pay for those who do.

It would be possible to fund free restaurants out of taxation, but if you do that you might as well fund shops from taxation too. In that case each of us would take what we wanted from the supermarket, but not pay anything. This would abolish money. It would also require rationing, because if everything were free it would be necessary to stop people stripping the shelves of free food and drink. Free healthcare for this reason has waiting lists. If you open a pub paid for by taxation with free beer, it too will have to ration the beer or else run out. You will only get immediate access to the beer if you have to pay for it. This is the problem with the socialist model of healthcare and indeed the socialist model of anything.

The capitalist or Conservative model of taxation is that we each pay for what we want to buy and that government only funds areas that cannot be reasonably funded privately. The socialist or Labour model is to extend government and public spending so that taxation funds not merely the police, schools and hospitals, but also areas that we might have been left to pay for ourselves such as free eye tests free prescriptions and free public transport.

Take the example of the bridge to Skye. Previously to there being a bridge everybody who wanted to go to Skye had to pay to go on the ferry. After the bridge was built some residents of Skye complained about having to pay a toll. What they wanted was for everybody to pay for the cost of the bridge, rather than merely those who used it. This is essentially the BBC argument.

I was pleased when I drove to Skye that I didn’t have to queue to pay a toll, but at most I might cross this bridge once a year. Someone who lives on Skye might cross it every day. Society might decide that it is reasonable to fund bridges out of general taxation. But there is clearly a limit to what we should fund from general taxation otherwise we will end up with free shops, free restaurants and the abolition of money.

Where you draw this line ought to be the argument between the Conservatives and Labour.

The Conservative argument is that lowering taxation and lowering public spending increases economic growth and allows market efficiencies to make services better and cheaper. You get better healthcare with no waiting.

The Labour argument is that increasing government spending and raising taxation allows greater equality, because government can then redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest.

The Conservative argument is that this will make everyone poorer, because inequality is the reason why people work hard in order to make themselves better off. It provides an incentive. Labour will make us more equal, but at the expense of making us on average poorer.

Hardly anyone would expect a trip to the cinema to be paid for from taxation, let alone a trip to the pub. We don’t expect people who never go to the cinema to pay for those who do. But this is the model of funding that the BBC expects to continue even when there are now hundreds of channels paid for either by subscription or advertising.

But what of poor people who might not be able to afford a subscription? What about radio? We could not easily subscribe to Radio 4. There are also BBC channels which must have very low view viewing figures like BBC Parliament and BBC Alba. How could these be funded by subscription as they would attract few if any subscribers. This would require a political decision. Even if much of the BBC were to be funded by subscription a core public service channel might be available for free either funded by that subscription or by general taxation.

In some countries the public sector broadcaster has adverts between programmes. This would be no worse than at present where the BBC has endless adverts for its own programmes and services.

The BBC is stuck with a funding model which is obsolete. It is not the public service broadcaster that it was. There are very few genuinely intellectual programmes on TV compared to in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the output is popular and dumbed down. There is too much woke propaganda.

If the BBC were funded by subscription it would have to change. It could no longer afford enormous salaries for those who don’t merit them. It would have to become more efficient and it would have to go into the world market place to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. But it is just this that is necessary if the BBC is once more to be the world leader that it once was. The licence fee traps it in public ownership just as much as British Leyland.  

So long as the BBC relies on handouts it will remain lying in bed, getting up unshaved at 11 strolling to the foodbank and then on to the corner shop for some beers and a packet of fags. It may think that there is no other way of living, but it is in fact trapped by the handouts, which prevent it from fulfilling its potential. It is a dole scrounger with detector vans.

Who should pay for the BBC? Those who watch it. If you don’t go to the restaurant, you shouldn’t be expected to pay for those that do.

The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.