Why should we pay the Orwellian licence fee?

Threatening TV licence-dodgers with scary ads can’t disguise the fact that fewer people are watching the Beeb.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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Some government public information services or advertisements on behalf of state services never change. Drink-driving awareness adverts invariably feature a before-and-after narrative, beginning with people shown having a merry old time at the pub, and ending with the aforementioned revellers entombed in a bloodied, twisted hunk of metal. Army recruitment adverts have always suggested that by signing up you can become a kind of ersatz, global social worker, learn some skills, or drive an exciting tank; they never mention that being in the Army may actually involve killing people or getting your head blown off. And TV licence adverts have always relied on the trusty old message: ‘We Know Where You Live’.

The TV licence advert currently gracing our screens is the government’s most menacing and threatening to date. It depicts a city in the form of a computer’s innards, boasting that the government’s computers have access to all of our details, suggesting in the process that the state regards us not as citizens, but as numbers, pieces of data, cogs in the machine. Never mind identity cards, why don’t they just brand us with irons instead?

It is tempting to say that this is akin to Nazi Germany or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is true that these allusions are all too loosely and inappropriately bandied about. One thinks of Basil Fawlty’s response to guests who were merely complaining about his incompetence: ‘this is exactly how Nazi Germany started’. Yet in the case of the menacing license threats, one may argue that such comparisons with the past are merited. Out of all the forms of undesirable governance, one of the unique features of totalitarianism is its reliance on bureaucracy, technology, statistics and surveillance as means to dehumanise people. Our society may not be totalitarian to the extent that genocide is permitted, but it is becoming so in the way that the contract between state and citizen is interpreted. Certainly, the UK is beginning to resemble countries such as Singapore or China, where political and civil liberties are curtailed in exchange for economic liberalism.

On the other hand, one may interpret this latest advert as a sign of panic and of weakness (after all, who’s going to be afraid of notoriously cack government databases). The case for the abolition of the licence fee has never been stronger, and I suspect that the government knows it. The licence fee is in its death throes.

First of all, since many households have Sky, Freeview or Virgin, the BBC, just like its commercial counterparts, Channel 4 and ITV1, does not command the share of the audience they once did. People are watching other channels, and thus compulsorily paying for a channel they use less frequently. This is partly what made the old radio licence fee so unjustified, which, since the airwaves were liberalised in the 1960s, was abolished in 1971.

The expansion of the television network since the 1990s has also in turn dismissed the unfounded fear that commercial television is incapable of producing sensible and high-brow programmes. The wealth of documentary, news, foreign language and film channels suggests the market can provide – the quality found here is ironically highlighted by the fact the BBC now puts its sensible fare on its non-terrestrial BBC4 channel, and that in order to place EastEnders and its profusion of Casualty spin-offs in prime-time, Question Time comes out just when most people are going to bed, leaving poor old Andrew Neil’s jolly politics show, This Week, to languish in the middle of the night.

The BBC really is its own enemy at times, and antagonises those who are otherwise sympathetic to the Reithian spirit. Radio 4’s jaundiced, liberal-left take on the world is a particular scandal. I don’t mind people being left-wing, I just object to people thinking it is normal – and that anyone who is not is wicked or stupid and in need of re-education.

Auntie is shooting itself in the foot in another area currently, by reminding viewers that they can watch their favourite shows on the BBC website. By doing so, the Beeb is spreading the realisation that you don’t necessarily need a television set to watch television programmes anymore. Many teenagers and young adults are increasingly eschewing television altogether, preferring to watch YouTube. Just as landline telephone lines are vanishing from our homes as mobile phones have made them redundant, I suspect greater technological interactivity will one day see television sets go the same way. So with no TVs, why a TV licence?

By watching programmes on the internet, we can by-pass irritating commercial breaks, whose presence on the other channels has always been cited as a reason to keep the BBC as it is. But commercial breaks will also soon be a thing of the past. The internet and the Sky+ record and fast-forward facilities are making them obsolete, which Sky knows all-too-well, hence the bulk of its revenue comes from subscription charges. There are moves afoot at present to lift the ban on product placement on television programmes, a direct reaction to the waning influence of commercial breaks. So, soon, viewers of Coronation Street may no longer have to endure the unrealistic spectacle of someone asking for ‘a pint of bitter’ at the Rover’s Return (no-one asks for generic beers in pubs) but, perhaps, ‘a pint of Boddington’s’ or ‘a pint of John Smith’s’.

I won’t predict that the licence fee is definitely on its way out. Nor will I necessarily applaud it if it does go, because you know what’s going to happen as a consequence. Australia abolished its TV licence fee in 1974, but its government still funds the Australian Broadcasting Commission to the tune of A$800m per year. India abolished its in 1977, Portugal in 1992, Holland in 2000, Hungary in 2002: all of these countries replaced it with direct state funding. The only difference this made was to cut down on administrative costs, and to alter a tax on televisions from a regressive tax to a proportional one.

So, in a way the issue is not whether to abolish the TV licence fee. The real question is: what should come after? In essence, the quandary remains: should we be taxed to watch television?

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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