Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In defence of the licence fee

I had cause to reply to a correspondent today who complained that, unlike satellite subscriptions, the television license was compulsory.

You only have to pay the license fee if you operate a television receiver. So it's not compulsory.

You have the choice to either pay the license fee, or to watch a television receiver operated by someone else, or in premises already covered by a license, or even not watch broadcast television at all.

I sense I may be wasting my time in this discussion, because I passionately believe that there should be publicly funded broadcasting in the UK, and that it should be funded by means-related non-government taxation. The license fee is a close enough approximation to do the job - it's paid for by the breadwinner in a household that can afford the luxury of a television set, so that household dependents do not have to contribute.

I don't have any sympathy at all with the argument that individuals who claim not to use public broadcasting should be exempt from contributing to its upkeep. I seldom listen to Radio 1, 2 or 3, or watch BBC3, for example, but I understand that they are worthwhile and unique endeavours and I'm happy to help fund them. It's rather like as the NHS - I don't pay for the provision of its services (many of which I hope I'll never use) as an insurance policy, but because it's the civilised, decent thing to do.

I observe that the BBC makes the UK more thoughtful, and better informed. It can do this because it follows a mandate that isn't driven by sponsors and advertisers. It isn't funded by business or by government, so it can be uniquely independent and impartial.

If the BBC had to resort to the same kind of funding as independent broadcasters, then it would lose most of what makes it so valuable.

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