The BBC is on the chopping block. Is the corporation still worth the licence fee?

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YES – James Sewry

The BBC’s services are rightfully admired across the world for their quality, scope, and impartiality. At home, its reputation is just as assured, with an average weekly reach of 97 percent of the population. Most recently, 13.4 million viewers tuned in to watch the final of The Great British Bake Off, which, excluding sport, brought in the biggest audience since coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June 2012. Perhaps most impressively, 56 per cent of people want the BBC to provide more.

While these stats alone, it would seem, are enough to justify the current licence fee of £145.50, the BBC does not solely chase viewing figures. Since its inception in 1922, the BBC’s purpose has been to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ the British public. The quality with which the Corporation consistently meets these aims is remarkable. From the insightful political analysis of its journalists, to the wide-ranging scope of its historical documentaries and professional home-grown dramas, the BBC produces content that is consistently innovative, distinctive, and popular. Take one example: only ten percent of BBC Radio 3’s music is repeated, compared with Classic FM’s forty percent.

What is more, the BBC’s scope more than justifies its £12.30 monthly charge. Twenty years ago, the Corporation had two television channels and five national radio stations. Now, it boasts nine television channels and ten national radio stations. Far from targeting a ‘metropolitan élite’, this range caters for many interests and different social groups, which in part helps to explain why public allegiance to the BBC is so strong: its wide appeal means there’s something in it for everyone. Beyond television and radio, the BBC’s online presence has steadily grown. Its website provides reliable news articles and comprehensive sports coverage, whilst at the same time allowing users to catch up on their favourite television or radio programmes via the iPlayer.

Critics of the BBC frequently claim that it suffers from political bias. But when those criticisms come from both the Left (by the SNP during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum) and the Right (by Nigel Farage in the run-up to this year’s general election), it is clear that the BBC excels in impartiality. That’s why its proposals to expand its World Service to Russia, North Korea and India are so important. In suppressive political environments, independent and impartial news media are lacking; this is a gap the BBC can fill. Reputation is a national asset, but can only be further enhanced by continued funding from the taxpayer.

Finally, the BBC’s service is extremely good value for money. Consistently aspiring to provide households with more for less, the BBC is, according to consultants PwC, one of the most efficient public sector organisations. Its ability to make savings and manage overhead costs has had a direct impact on viewers, allowing it to fund popular services such as iPlayer. At such a small individual contribution, viewers receive programmes that can, at their best, easily surpass their commercial rivals.

It is entirely appropriate that the BBC is viewed as one of Britain’s best public institutions. In its current form, the BBC’s quality, scope, impartiality, and value for money more than justifies its £145.50 yearly price tag. It should be treasured and supported. Given Tory plans for the future, this is more important now than ever.

 

NO – Imogen Gosling

The BBC was founded in 1922, in the dawning age of mass media, and, at first, enjoyed complete and uncontested control of the airwaves. Herein lies the origin of the license fee: it was a common-sense means of subsidising the sole provider of mass news and entertainment. Thankfully, times have moved on. Competition, from ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News, has raised the entertainment stakes.

Consumers can now choose from a multiple and diverse range of channels, and an environment in which programmes thrive or flop has pushed producers to make better, more exciting, and more sophisticated programmes. Ever since Winston Churchill approved the creation of ITV in 1955, the entertainment industry has proved a shining example of free market dynamism.

But it’s important to consider the purpose of the BBC. Some believe it’s to produce distinctive programmes that investigate, educate and expose; others believe it’s to entertain above all else. Everyone is entitled to choose how they spend their money, and currently only a minority choose to spend it on highbrow journalism (Compare The Sun’s daily circulation of two million to the Economist’s weekly 300,000). Universal funding for relatively niche services and programmes is a paradox, and to be worth its license fee the BBC ought to have a more widespread and popular appeal.

It’s also worth questioning whether the BBC succeeds in public entertainment.

Certainly, programmes such as Have I Got News for You, Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake Off have attracted substantial audiences. But this is not enough. To merit its unique funding status, the BBC must be the undisputed king of mass entertainment. ITV’s Downton Abbey, Coronation Street and The X Factor are equally if not more impressive than the BBC’s “popular” programmes.

If it is just another broadcasting company, then the BBC’s license fee becomes archaic, a mere quirk of history, which, in an age of austerity, is one we could do without.

Then there is the unfair distribution of its cost. Technological advancement since the 1920s has complicated the notion of a license fee; alongside television and radio, we now have the iPlayer. While some viewers get great value for money, others are significantly over-paying. In any other sector, particularly finance, this discrepancy would be a cause of outrage, but the BBC’s longevity means it is getting away with unprofessional practice. For the many who only switch on to watch, say, the news, the BBC is most definitely not worth the license fee.

Finally, in the words of former BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr, the BBC has “an innate liberal bias”. Indeed, it was criticised to this end in its coverage of the 2015 general election. For a national institution, any bias is wrong.

In the end, for the BBC to be a genuine public service, it must cater for popular tastes, distinguish itself from its competitors, make payment fairer, and free itself from political bias. Until it has met these crucial criteria, it is not worth the license fee.

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