How Should We Pay for the BBC?

Dr Elke Weissmann

It is unlikely that you will have missed the announcement by Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who suggested that the licence fee, in addition of being frozen again for the next two years, will not be renewed in 2027. This, of course, is (partially) contingent on if she and indeed her government are still in power by then. Commentators have also suggested the announcement was meant to be a distraction from ‘Partygate’ about which Paula Keaveney has blogged for the ISR.

However, the announcement has made clear that the current government is continuing a policy regarding public service broadcasting that has been Conservative policy since the 1980s, when the Peacock Committee was set up to investigate if the licence fee could be abolished. As broadcasting scholar Paddy Scannell has highlighted, the Peacock Committee reconceptualised public service broadcasting away ‘from a social and cultural service for the community [towards] the production of commodities for individual consumers’ (1990: p29). It’s this latter understanding that has been particularly visible in social media responses that showed support for Dorries’s announcement, as the one below.

Television scholars have looked at these changes with concern, as the above quote makes clear. The reason for this is simple: we see in public service television more than the television you can watch. There are of course alternative ways of funding public service broadcasting, as both ITV and Channel 4 make evident. But as both of these broadcasters show as well, this form of commercial funding of public service television is under significant strain; a report in 2016, Ernst & Young LPP spell this out explicitly for Channel 4.

So far, the licence fee has given the BBC a large regular income which has enabled it to provide the variety of services that we consume: the television, website, radio, the world service and the educational services in partnership with the Open University, films, etc. Over the years they have become part-financed by the BBC’s commercial services which supplements it to about a third of the BBC’s income (Annual Report, 2021).

Its programmes are made with certain remits in mind, meaning that they have to represent that nation in its diversity. This is why we get such a wide variety of programmes from Strictly Come Dancing (since 2004), via Gardeners’ World (since 1968), Question Time (since 1979), sports coverage to dramas including EastEnders (since 1985) and Small Axe (with Amazon Prime, 2020). It has a duty to represent the United Kingdom to the world and thus is an ambassador for it. As a result, it also is pivotal to the British tourist industry, including for Liverpool which has benefitted enormously from its association with Peaky Blinders (since 2013).

Letitia Wright, Small Axe

But most of all, it continues to provide a social and cultural service: this includes the educational services it made available to all children during lockdown and that remain an important tool for teaching even in the returned classroom. But it also includes giving us programmes to talk about, including those that make us angry, because the licence fee guarantees that we all can universally access its services in some form or another. And thus, the BBC continues to offer a glue that binds the nation together – its unique, but how we finance it in the era of streaming, YouTube and others – needs wider debate.

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film. She is ECREA editor of Critical Studies in Television and part of Edge Hill University’s Television Studies Research Group.

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

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