One of the casualties of Operation Red Meat, a desperate media operation launched by Johnson loyalists to deflect attention from Partygate allegations is the BBC’s future. It was one in a series of policy initiatives aimed to please back bench Tory MPs and grab some ‘positive’ media attention and reverse Johnson’s rapidly declining fortunes. The licence fee will be frozen at £159 for 2 years, followed by inflation only increases until 2027. When asked in Parliament about her comments on Twitter last Sunday when she made the announcement, she replied: “I cannot see a world in 2028 where individual households are paying an outdated fee established in 1922 to fund an organisation.
The BBC has been a favourite target of the Tory right for many years and the public service broadcaster has been subjected to decades of below inflation level licence fee settlements with the corporation’s income for UK services already 30% lower in real terms than it was 10 years ago. The NUJ estimates that 2,000 jobs were lost in the last round of cuts, see Michelle Stanistreet NUJ General Secretary’s recent article at: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/attacks-bbc-are-act-cultural-vandalism
Media reform organisations like the former Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and the Media Reform Coalition have long argued in favour of public service broadcasting but are only too aware that the BBC does not always get it right, and that reforms are needed. As far as the BBC goes you could describe me as a critical friend. There is also a serious need to look at how the corporation is funded, although the review announced this week led by the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries should give serious minded people cause for concern. She is I guess very sympathetic to the ideas of the neo-liberal think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs who in 2019 reiterated its long held view that the BBC should be funded by subscription and there was no need for specific policy in relation to public service broadcasting (see: https://iea.org.uk/publications/new-vision)
Two years ago when the government was consulting on whether to decriminalise non-payment of the television licence fee, I did a short study of how public service broadcasting was funded in a handful of European countries as a contribution to a discussion on possible workable alternatives to the licence fee. The article was not published but now is the time to let it see the light of day. A quick update – Domminic Cummings is of course no longer employed by Johnson as mentioned at the end).
‘What future the television licence fee?
While the government is still deciding on whether to decriminalise non-payment of the television licence fee, following a public consultation earlier this year, the very future of the TV licence fee hangs in the balance. Although safe until the next BBC Charter Review in 2027, when the way the BBC is governed and funded is decided, government ministers are reported as saying they are “open minded” about how to fund the BBC from then onwards.
Ever since the arrival of digital technology with more viewers going on line, the TV licence fee has been more seriously questioned. There are 25,752,560 television licences in the UK, according to the most recent figures – a slight drop on the previous year, despite the population continuing to increase. As a flat rate fee applied uniformly (with exceptions for the over 75s receiving Pension Credit which is now paid for by the BBC), it’s a regressive payment, taking a larger percentage of income from low-income earners than from high-income earners, which has been criticised by some on the grounds as fairness. The government (not parliament) decides of the level of the licence fee.
So what are the alternatives?
There are some basic principles to be established. Attempts to move to a commercial or subscription model should be resisted and whatever system is introduced it must be independent of government and commercial pressures, with the central focus being the promotion of public service principles.
In January 2013, Finland scrapped its TV licence fee and introduced a public service broadcasting tax – also called YLE tax – to fund the Finnish Broadcasting Company. The same year Germany replaced its licence fee with a household levy charged at a flat rate per household with exemptions for certain low-income groups (e.g. welfare claimants and students); businesses also pay the levy. In Denmark the licence fee is being phased out over a five year period starting 1 January 2019, and public service broadcasters will instead be financed through taxes. However, opposition parties opposed the reduced budget for public broadcasters, which included a 20% budget decrease for the biggest public broadcaster, DR.
Another example is Sweden, when in November 2018 parliament (the Riksdag) decided that the radio and television licence fee, paid by all households that had a television, would be replaced by an individual public service fee. The only party to oppose the change was the far right populist Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats). The fee is collected via the tax system and administered in a closed (or ring fenced) system so that funds are kept separate from other funds in the government budget. It’s paid by everyone aged 18 and over who has a taxable earned income. The maximum payment is 1,350 SEK/year per person (around £120). Depending on your income the fee can be lower and in some cases it can be zero.
Fees are collected by Skatteverket (the Swedish Tax Agency) and based on individual income tax returns. The Agency pays the money to a special public service account administered by Kammarkollegiet (the Legal, Financial and Administrative Services Agency). Through this agency the money is administered in a ring fenced system separate from the rest of the central government budget. The money in the account may only be used to finance public service broadcasting activities.
There are five public service TV channels: SVT1, SVT2, SVT24, Barnkanalen (Children ́s channel) and Kunskapskanalen (The Knowledge channel). There is no advertising on these channels. Within these public service channels there is also regional broadcasting and Swedish Radio channels are also included in the fee.
The system was introduced on 1 January 2019 and along with the new fee, other changes were introduced which aimed at strengthening the independence of public service broadcasting. Just how successful these changes turn out remain to be seen. One big advantage is that via the tax system everybody to pays tax has to pay and it’s fairer and provides a more reliable income for PSB. On the other hand there are those who say that PSB is just the voice of the government and this is said to be easier to claim as the parliament decides on the allocation of funding to the broadcasters. To counter this, the Government appointed an inquiry on constitutional reform to analyse whether the public service companies’ independence is sufficiently guaranteed through the current regulations or whether their independence can and should be further strengthened through amendments to the constitution.
Meanwhile back in the UK it’s worth remembering that in November 2004 Dominic Cummings, now Boris Johnson’s most powerful adviser, wrote an article for The Business, a now defunct newspaper, calling for a “campaign to end the licence fee and break the BBC’s stranglehold”.
Hard struggles lay ahead.’