Sarah Ingham: The BBC licence fee makes no sense in our digital age

18 Feb

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Our small screens have had a good pandemic.

Ratings surged as house-bound Britain turned to box sets. Hovering around $330 at the start of 2020, Netflix shares went through the $700 barrier last autumn. Who didn’t want to escape the reality of being stuck at home with Chris Whitty for the scripted reality of luxury real estate, perfect teeth and power heels in Selling Sunset? Squid Game (Korea), Fauda (Israel) and Call My Agent (France) were glimpses of a world beyond a tepid staycation in Devon.

And for those who haven’t had enough of big pharma over the past two years, there is now Dopesick on Disney+. Over on Amazon Prime, Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age swaps Downton for New York’s Upper East Side and Burke’s Peerage for the Social Register.

We are undoubtedly living in a golden age of television. Or rather of content that would once have been watched on a television set, where we originally watched The Sopranos episode-by-weekly-episode, just as earlier generations thrilled to that other family drama with a high corpse count, I, Claudius.

The acclaimed togas’n’tunics series, made by the BBC in 1976, features in Time magazine’s 100 Best TV Shows of All Time. It can now be streamed via Apple TV. Those holding Apple stock in the past two years would have seen the price go from around $73 to almost $173.

Approaching its centenary, the British Broadcasting Corporation does not have to concern itself with matters like shareholder value. Like the old money oligarchs of The Gilded Age, the BBC is cushioned by vast unearned income. It can afford to look down on upstart start-ups, whether comparative minnows such as GB News and Times Radio, or mighty YouTube – from which about a quarter of US adults get their news, according to a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center.

Auntie Beeb and her cheerleaders will point to 2021 ratings as proof of her popularity. Aside from the 2020 Euros and the PM’s announcement of lockdown on January 4 – surely an unexpected winner – it had Top 10 hits with Strictly Come Dancing, Vigil and Line of Duty, whose final episode drew 15.2 million viewers.

It is perhaps the Strictly factor that makes the Government hesitate to kill off the licence fee, despite its almost 80-seat majority. Smashing the glitterball and unpicking the sequins would be a dismaying prospect to millions of viewers, who are also voters.

Last month, following the announcement that the licence fee would be frozen for two years, BBC boss Tim Davie implied the future of BBC2, BBC4 and Radio 5 Live could be in doubt. If he had wanted to engage Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and the Indignants of other leafy constituencies, this was a far shrewder pick of stations-in-jeopardy than, say, Radio 1 or the soon-to-be revived BBC3.

Does the end of the current BBC funding model really mean the end of broadcasting Glasto/EastEnders/David Attenborough/Radios 3 and 6? Or of Wimbledon fortnight uninterrupted by ad breaks? Given the chasms which could apparently open in Britain’s cultural landscape, no wonder a minister even as doughty as Nadine Dorries backs off from any absolute commitment to abolish the licence fee.

The TV licence is, however, an analog anachronism in our digital age. It is time it was axed and the Corporation funded by subscription.

In 2020-21, the licence fee raised £3.75 billion, accounting for 74 per cent of the BBC’s £5.06 billion income. A recent You Gov/Times poll found that only one in 20 of those aged 18-30 watched any BBC channels live every day, compared with almost half of people aged 65 or above.

A television-set tax makes no sense in an era when millions of us are choosing to subscribe to streaming services and are watching what we like, when we like, on our mobile phones and tablets.

A public service broadcaster is the more creative branch of the Civil Service. Like most in Britain’s bloated public sector, it is great at splurging other people’s money. With no need to earn its keep, is it surprising that the £££s the Corporation fritters away on taxis and diversity officers are a tabloid staple?

Supporters claim the BBC represents brilliant value – 44p a day. They overlook the mutual dislike between the BBC and its paymasters, that is, the listening and viewing public. Many resent being legally coerced into funding a service whose worldview is completely at odds with their own.

The national broadcaster should aim to be a neutral in Britain’s cultural skirmishing. As Oliver Dowden stated in his recent speech to the Heritage Foundation, “There has always been a tendency among cultural and educational elite to serve their own interests rather than serve the public at large.”

If the BBC is really serving Middle Britain, it seems odd it lost Bake Off and turned down the revived All Creatures Great and Small, now a hit for Channel 5. Clarkson’s Farm has done more to entertain, educate and inform us about rural life than the clunkingly woke Countryfile or The Archers.

In 2013, the updated House of Cards became the gateway to Netflix for many. Three years later, The Crown pulled in even more new subscribers. Starting in 1997 as a DVD rental company, Netflix is now making Academy Award-winning films and is streaming in 190 countries. In 2020, it generated almost $25 billion in revenue and had an operating profit of $4.5 billion.

Meanwhile, over to the cultural blob that is our aged national broadcaster… In 2020, 55,061 of the nation’s citizens were prosecuted for TV licence evasion. Of the 52,477 convicted, 76 per cent were women, who were unlikely to have been among the most affluent members of the public.

And how absolutely fabulous is that, sweetie darling?

James Frayne: Voters are largely supportive of the BBC licence fee being frozen – but don’t care so much about accusations of bias

18 Jan

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Nadine Dorries’ announcement of a two-year freeze in the licence fee – while hinting the Government will force a subscription model on the BBC in the longer-term – suggests the Government believes serious reform of the BBC could be electorally popular. Is the Government right about this?

Let’s look at the licence fee to begin with. I last researched the licence fee in an autumn poll on living standards for the TPA. It revealed the following:

(a) The TV licence was named the second least fair tax from a range of options, marginally below inheritance tax. It was seen as the least fair tax amongst 18-24 year olds, women, working class voters and Leave voters (not your classic mix).

(b) On the flip side, just eight per cent thought the licence fee was one of the fairest taxes, compared to, say, 26 per cent who named alcohol and tobacco duties as fair.

(c) Given a list of taxes the Government could raise to pay off Covid debts, the TV licence was joint-bottom, along with council tax.

(d) Given a list of taxes the Government could cut after Covid debt had been reduced, the TV licence was mid-table: below income tax, council tax, NICs and VAT; but above several others.

(e) Incidentally, just seven per cent thought the TV Licence brought in a lot of revenue for Government.

This is just a handful of datapoints from one poll, but others have shown the same results over the last few years. Despite the limited scope of the change – a temporary freeze, not a cut – this should be a popular move.

It’s strange that senior BBC execs have expressed surprise at the freeze. The polling – coupled with fractious relations between the Government and BBC – meant this was on the cards for two years. The BBC has always been confident that support for a licence fee cut would erode as people considered the content that might be lost. We’ll see; maybe the polls will shift a little.

However, a big shift is unlikely: while a minority of people will change their minds as they consider things properly, most won’t give this a second’s thought – and vast numbers will be far more focused on their disposable income. Irrational or not, the licence fee is disproportionately hated because, like council tax (and to some extent, inheritance tax), people effectively write a cheque for the money – which drives them crazy.

Another reason why support for the freeze is unlikely to flip is the recent coverage about what BBC stars – from both entertainment and news – are paid. In a time of falling living standards, it won’t be credible to plead poverty while paying vast sums to so many people.

It isn’t yet clear if the Government will open a broader front and force a debate on the entire model of BBC funding in the short-term. Despite the build up at the weekend, when it came to it in Parliament yesterday Dorries only vaguely hinted at it.

The popularity of such a fundamental reform is far from assured, but nor is it inconceivable. However, if the Government is serious about genuinely changing the BBC’s funding model, the one way to lose the debate is to focus on apparent “BBC bias”. It was a mistake for Dorries to have made this point so high up in her statement. Almost no one truly believes the BBC is riddled with bias and it makes politicians sound weird when they assert it.

The Government will be on much surer ground if it justifies change on the basis of changing social habits. Dorries did prepare the ground for this yesterday and this was the most persuasive part of her statement. As I wrote here almost exactly two years ago, apathy towards the BBC is increasing. Very large numbers of people just don’t see the point in the BBC because they rely on other platforms like YouTube, Netflix, Prime, Apple TV and all the rest. This is certainly true of entertainment, but it’s also true of news; huge numbers of people pick up news in snippets, from a range of sources, all accessed via social media. Fewer and fewer people seek out news on dedicated platforms.

Despite this, it is here, in this more fundamental debate, where the BBC’s defence is more powerful. Far more people will be persuaded about their warnings of the impact of other methods of funding – which will make people ask whether the country would be better with the BBC (or BBC News, at least) in roughly the same form than it would be without it. Large numbers of people still rely on the BBC News website and on the main bulletins. Broadcast news is dwindling, but it surely has a medium-term future.

Coming back to the original question: is the Government right to assume that clipping the BBC’s wings is popular. In terms of freezing the licence fee? Yes, definitely, unless they completely mess up the communications. In terms of more fundamental change? It’s hard to see what the Government would gain from forcing the debate now; better to just wait to see where things are in a few years. They should certainly avoid boring everyone to death about what lefties the BBC are. No one cares.

Sarah Ingham: The Government could learn a thing or two from Britain’s panic buyers

1 Oct

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Who said Britain’s bureaucrats have had an irony-bypass?

The Cabinet Office’s deadline for evidence to formulate the Government’s new National Resilience Strategy was on Monday.

This was of course the day when the fuel crisis intensified and the Governor of the Bank of England suggested an interest rate rise might be on the cards before Christmas. He also confessed to having wondered if locusts might be another calamity to afflict the country.

Biblical plagues make a change from overworked Black Swans, those metaphors for malign events so rare they are only meant to happen once in a lifetime. Except, at present, Britain seems to be visited by a lamentation – an all-too-apt collective noun – of these supposedly rare birds.

Resilience is the ability to withstand or come back from difficulties. This week, ministers were quick to condemn the public for “panic-buying” its petrol, as if vehicle owners have been in a ditzy tizzy rather than acting out of rational self-interest.

For those of us not being swooshed around town in the back of chauffeur-driven Zil limousines – sorry, taxpayer-funded Jaguars – taking opportunities to diesel up cabs and white vans at a time of possible shortage is actually acting with prudence and foresight.

Filling up during a fuel crisis is “identifying, assessing, preparing for and responding to risks”, which, according to 2020 National Risk Register, is what the Government is meant to be doing. But isn’t.

Among the 38 possible threats identified in the Register, including earthquakes and a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear attack, is a pandemic. Covid-19 makes a brief appearance, although it is excluded from the Register’s Matrix of Risk: included, however, is “Undermining the Democratic Process”.

Unlike “Severe Space Weather” or the meteor strike mentioned in the Strategy’s evidence call, this risk actually came to pass, thanks to the Government’s hysterical over-reaction to an illness whose lethality in a historical context is comparatively minor.

Lockdown, which included putting the economy in deep-freeze and led to the greatest interference by the state in our personal liberty in the country’s history, has so far cost Britain an estimated £400 billion. No risk-benefit analysis was carried out before we were all put under house arrest and made poorer.

Trainee reporters used to be told to exercise their judgment. As the saying has it, “If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the ******* window and find out which is true.”

Labour shortages. Supply bottlenecks. A national debt of £2,225 billion (“V-shaped recovery”: what “V-shaped recovery”?). An energy crisis. Chaos in airport arrivals halls. Inflation. A dearth of doctors and critical care capacity in the NHS. The M25 repeatedly brought to a halt. Whatever next; a run on the pound?

Instead of designing matrixes and writing a Strategy to be published next March, those ministers and officials allegedly overseeing Britain’s resilience should start looking out of the ******* window right now. Ta-da! Evidence.

Last week there were calls for soldiers to man ambulances; this week, it’s fuel tankers. Next week, the Border Force? Next month, the Police? National resilience includes the Armed Forces playing their part; Military Aid to the Civilian Authorities.

Increasingly, it seems that expensively trained personnel are viewed by the Government as little more than uniformed agency staff, deployed at whim to fill the chasms in our civilian infrastructure. Britain is beginning to resemble some sub-Saharan nation like Guinea where the Army is about the only properly functioning arm of the state.

This summer, thousands of DVLA staff stopped pushing their pens and started downing tools as part of industrial action by the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Targeted was the Drivers Medical group, chosen “due to its strategic importance to the Agency and the fact that Ministers are assigning huge importance to backlogs in this area” according a post on the PCS website on July 21. Instead of solely blaming Brexit for the HGV driver shortage, should we also be factoring in shrewd Union tactics? Mark Serotkwa, the new Arthur Scargill, discuss.

Working From Home has had a corrosive impact on the efficiency of most workplaces, including the DVLA. Last week, a Permanent Secretary extolled the virtues of being out-of-office. 

Should she really wish to spend more time with her family as she claims, let her quit the public payroll. Otherwise she should be ordered off her Peloton, onto her bike and back into the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, now overseen by the refreshingly bracing Nadine Dorries.

Conservatives are supposed champion and celebrate the country’s business-folk. The Party used to applaud personal resilience and self-reliance, which can boil down to something as simple as having savings or a pension plan. Those waiting their turn on Britain’s fuel station forecourts are showing the sort of foresight that enables them perhaps to get to work or care for an elderly relative.

In anticipating possible difficulties and making a risk assessment, these “panic-buyers” are setting an example to the Government and its officials.

Why shouldn’t Tories use Parler?

18 Jan

Yesterday The Observer ran a piece titled “Revealed: Tory MPs and commentators who joined banned app Parler”. Presumably anyone reading was meant to be incredibly shocked that at least 14 Conservatives had been on the app including Michael Gove, Steve Baker and Ben Bradley.

If you haven’t used Parler before – and it’s since been removed from Google, Amazon and Apple platforms, so there’s not much chance of that now – its users consider it a free speech site. Others, particularly left-wing publications, have mischaracterised it as “synonymous with the alt-right”. Those associated with it have been demonised.

I happen to be a commentator who joined Parler, and I have no guilt about my actions. I started an account last year after having concerns about Twitter’s increasing use of labels for “disputed or misleading information”, as I tend to the view that people can think for themselves and regard such signposting as tech overreach, paving the way to increased, ideologically-driven censorship. In general, I regarded Parler as a “back-up” option in case I ever left Twitter, for whatever reason.

Many others seemed to have this idea and created Parler accounts. On the occasions I logged onto Parler – which were few and far between as I found it clunky – the posts seemed friendly enough and I never saw anything untoward. However, it is clear from recent news that a cohort of extremists did use Parler to post horrible content, perhaps viewing “free speech” as an invitation to be as offensive as possible.

Here’s where Parler got into difficulties, the ultimate irony being that it’s never actually promoted absolute free speech. Parler, in fact, had its own moderators to go through posts, but there weren’t enough of them to deal with problematic content, something that became more noticeable when the Capitol was under attack. While Twitter banned Trump, Parler’s inertia in dealing with posts that incited violence against elected officials led Google and Apple to pull the plug, removing it from their app stores, thus rendering it non-existent (albeit its founder has said it will be back by the end of the month).

Whether deleting the whole app was justified is another debate. But the point of this piece is to address the smearing of Tory MPs, Conservatives and others who signed up to this site, all for the crime of exploring alternatives to Twitter. There’s something deeply sinister about the manner in which people have noted their names, viewing them as “guilty by association” because others misused the system (a rule that would mean everyone on Twitter was “guilty”, incidentally).

It’s clear that Parler will simply become a word used to damage people’s reputation. “But you were on Parler!” You can imagine an opposition MP one day charging at Nadine Dorries. These attacks are not only poor form but actually counter-productive; as Andrew Doyle carefully put it on Twitter – they can increase online echo chambers, as more moderate voices shun alternative apps, like Parler, lest they be smeared for merely logging on.

The even greater shame is that we’re not discussing the most important aspects of the Parler story. Some of these stood out to me the other day while listening to John Matze, one of Parler’s founders, on the Megyn Kelly podcast. I discovered that he graduated in 2014, so perhaps it’s no wonder his management of free speech has been lacklustre compared to more experienced tech giants. Mild-mannered and trained as an engineer, he struck me as a geek who wanted to do good in the world, promoting healthy debate. In fact, the point of Parler is its name – “parler”; to speak – as it was designed to foster exchange between different political groups.

Instead of searching for MPs who used the app, the media should be talking about one of the most pressing issues of our time, tech censorship. There are big questions about Amazon and other corporate giants completely removed Parler (is it to gain complete control of the marketplace?). The app’s fate is arguably much more important than why Twitter deleted Trump’s account. A little more discussion on this issue wouldn’t go amiss.