Arguments about the BBC seem to invariably focus on whether it is biased or genuinely neutral. Zionists think it is anti-semitic. Anti-Zionists think it supports Palestinian genocide. The right thinks it disseminates Cultural Marxism and Europhilia. The left thinks it is little more than a cheerleader for the Tories, an establishment mouthpiece, and/or part of the Blairite-media conspiracy to undermine Comrade Corbyn.
Maybe all of this true; probably it is all paranoid nonsense. No news can be perfectly objective, and no network can please everyone. In fact, the BBC probably does comparably well compared to the likes of MSNBC and Fox News.
However, this is not a good argument for making everyone who owns a TV pay for a license fee. Neither is the popularity or quality of the BBC’s programming. The fact that some (even the majority of) people enjoy and benefit from what a network produces does not mean that other (even a minority of) people should have to subsidise it. If someone only wants to watch ITV, Channel 4, and Sky, then they should not have to pay to fund a network for others.
The solution from a policy perspective is simple: make payment voluntary. How to handle this should be left to the BBC itself. Introducing advertising may prove unpopular. Instead, it could be turned into a subscription only service. Perhaps people could choose to purchase TV and online subscriptions either separately or as a single package.
Setting aside that it is entirely subjective whether ‘Strictly’ is better than ‘X-Factor’, or if ‘Doctor Who’ is better than ‘Game of Thrones’, there is no reason that the quality of programming would fall. Netflix has proven extremely successful from charging a fraction of the license fee. There is no reason to think that many people who currently pay the fee would cease to do so. And, if they did, that would be because what the BBC was not offering a service worth paying for.
Some on the left would object that the purpose of having a state controlled network is to provide ‘higher class’ services to those who could not afford it otherwise. Regardless of the merits of this view, it does not support the license fee. There are no concessions for being poor. In fact, many of those convicted for non-payment are people who cannot afford to pay. Concessions for the over-75s are one of the many benefits offered to a proportionately well-off section of society. Concessions for the blind and care homes could be maintained, if the network or government saw fit.
Equally, cultural conservatives may trumpet the virtues of having a network that unites the nation and creates a sense of belonging and unity. This vision is woefully out-dated. The fracturing and pluralisation of the market means that the 1950s picture of families around the country crowding around their TV sets to watch the same thing is long dead. This is a positive development. People have always had a diversity of tastes and preferences, and yearning for more ‘community’ at the expense of the freedom of choice is a miserable ideal.
Unfortunately, when critics of the license fee attack the BBC for being too competitive or for falling short on impartiality, they are arguing on their opponents’ terms. They will lose these arguments. The proposals in the government’s White Paper to abolish the BBC Trust and replace it with a largely government appointed unitary board will only be unpopular. It does not matter whether the BBC is successful, popular, impartial, independent, or innovative. The license fee still needs to go.