Paul Vallely: Don’t tinker with the BBC licence fee

14 February 2020

The corporation provides good value for money, says Paul Vallely

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I WAS keeping an eye out for storm warnings on Twitter at the weekend when I came across a message that rather threw me. In Carlisle, the rivers still hadn’t reached their peak, one resident warned. Best keep tuned, another added, to “Netflix Radio Cumbria, on air through the night”.

Satire is not something that you are expecting when scrutinising storm warnings. Of course, Netflix does not have local radio — which was the very point that the acerbic commentator was seeking to make.

The US entertainment channel, which now has 11 million subscribers in the UK, was held up recently by the Culture Secretary, Baroness Morgan, as a possible model for future funding of the BBC. The current system of an annual licence fee was outdated, she said. Refusing to pay should cease to be a criminal offence. Only those who wanted the BBC should pay for it, especially since young people largely preferred YouTube. She asked what the public thought.

Such arguments are replete with false comparisons. It is true that the BBC costs £12.87 a month, compared with just £5.99 for Netflix, which has some great movies. But Netflix does not do radio, or news, or have a Parliament channel. It is targeted on entertainment. It is not regulated under UK law. It does not pay tax here. And it is massively in debt, funded largely by money from the US capital markets hoping for a huge future return. This is an entirely inappropriate model for the BBC.

In contrast, the BBC is not targeted: its aim is universality. Despite changes in the market, it reaches 91 per cent of the population every week — and its radio and online services are consumed by 400 million people, according to the veteran analyst Claire Enders. She also points out that, if the criminal sanction is removed, the BBC could be £400 million in debt by the time new levels of evasion can be measured.

The BBC is not value for money, say the newspapers that would profit commercially from a diminished BBC. Look at their prices. The Times costs £1.80 a day, the Daily Mail 70p, and The Sun 55p. The BBC costs 42p a day — and for that you get not one view, but many: there are nine national TV channels, regional news, 11 national radio stations, 40 local radio stations, the World Service, and a trustworthy website. That’s good value when you realise that the average British person now spends £44.50 per month on Amazon Prime, Spotify, Sky, Netflix, and other subscriptions.

I have never worked for the BBC (although my wife does), but I worked for decades for the Mail, Telegraph, Times, and Independent, and know that, in the world of journalism, the BBC — with its statutory duty of impartiality, fairness, and accuracy — constitutes a gold standard that keeps other journalists honest. That stems from having civic purpose, not commercial profit, as its mission. It seeks to serve everyone.

Why should people pay for the BBC if they don’t use it? For the same reason as they pay for schools when they have no children, hospitals when they are not ill, and buses when they have cars. No system is perfect. But the licence fee works. We tinker with it at peril to our democracy.

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