It is the question that many, politicians, and non-politicians alike, are asking: should we pay the BBC licence fee? Conservative politicians are increasingly asking the question. The Government launched a review of the licence fee this December with the culture secretary, Lucy Fraser, arguing that there was a “changing media landscape making the battle for audiences more competitive and the number of people paying the licence fee decreasing”. Despite my disagreement with the government on this issue, Fraser’s comments do raise some philosophical questions that the British people – and indeed the government – ought to consider carefully. In a world of subscription services, what value does the BBC bring? Secondly, is it fair to force the British public to pay for BBC services? For the first question, the answer is clear: the value the BBC brings is rather incredible. On the second issue, it is my view that this only reinforces the need for a unique service that serves the British people.
The point here is that the BBC is a part of this nation’s cultural heritage
Despite it being the case that Conservative politicians are keen to attack the BBC, continuing to ensure the corporation’s success is very much so in line with Conservative principles. Let us go back to that first question I raised earlier: what value does the BBC bring us today? It is, in essence, a uniquely British institution with one impressive history, founded in 1926. The point here is that the BBC is a part of this nation’s cultural heritage. More conservative readers may, naturally, value this argument but those on any part of the political spectrum should be able to recognise it too. The BBC serves as an important part of British identity and helps to protect it; its unrivalled coverage of the Coronation or continued investment in arts (the BBC spent £34 million on Radio 3 alone in the 2022/23 year) reinforces the point. Events such as The Coronation or arts programming may not matter to you personally, but it is indisputable that such services matter to substantial numbers of people. Most importantly, they form an important part of this nation’s culture and heritage. Equally, there is something to be said about the BBC being able to produce such programmes without having to consider how profitable they are: our nation’s heritage, traditions and arts should not be treated as a business. Rather, the priority should be to protect them.
Given that it is only those who reside in Britain that are obliged to pay the licence-fee, the BBC are obliged to focus on content that is relevant to them
On a practical level, the BBC serves as a beacon for British values and quality journalism around the world: The BBC World Service has a global reach of 351 million people per week. This figure deserves recognition: we should be proud that a truly British institution has this reputation. It goes without saying that the soft power this brings Britain is something to protect. Again, The BBC World Service may not matter to you personally, or even the majority of licence fee-payers, but clearly it matters to the world-wide communities who rely on it and those served by the 40 languages it broadcasts in. Even in a world of consumer choice and subscription services such as Netflix, the BBC continues to have clear value: its offering is uniquely tailored to a British audience, making it more relevant to Britons. Given that it is only those who reside in Britain that are obliged to pay the licence-fee, the BBC are obliged to focus on content that is relevant to them. The same cannot be said for Netflix which has millions of international customers to consider when they are producing shows for a British audience. Equally, what exactly would happen to UK-based production companies if the BBC was not protected, given that in 2021 alone, it invested £126 million in commissioning new programmes from them? The answer to this question is obvious: the industry would be damaged.
Spreading the cost throughout the population decreases the cost for everyone and ensures that arts and cultural output are not merely treated as a business
Yet, this leaves the second question of this article unanswered: why should we be forced to pay for the BBC through the licence fee, especially when many are struggling with the cost-of-living? There is no doubt that increases in the licence-fee are painful during a time like this, but they are a necessary evil. For a start, if the BBC were to move to a subscription-based model, it would most likely result in increased prices for subscribers. The increased licence fee for 2024 is a mere 46p per-day which seems a fair-cost for an expansive radio, TV, and news output – all of which are naturally expensive to run. Spreading the cost throughout the population decreases the cost for everyone and as argued before, ensures that arts and cultural output are not merely treated as a business. Equally, it is not actually clear how a subscription model would work: how would it work for radio, to name an example? I have yet to see any genuine proposals to solve the problem. To those who refuse to pay the licence fee, I say that you are not justified in opting out of a tax because you disagree with what it is going to. To use a thought experiment, if I disagreed with the NHS, would I be justified in refusing to pay National Insurance?
It is the case, therefore, that the current system is a necessary evil to protect the BBC, an institution that is an important part of our national heritage and continues to be used by millions. For those that raise concerns over impartiality, it should be noted that all news organisations suffer the same accusations. Are the other non-BBC alternatives really any better? I think not: it is not perfect, but no organisation is. Additionally, it is a perfect example of irony that the opinions of politicians who criticise the BBC only have impact because the corporation is publicly funded; the current model increases accountability. The licence-fee should therefore almost certainly remain – it is the best possible option.