BBC licence fee solution found 50 years ago as radio licence abolished

Jeremy Vine panelist criticises removal of free TV licences

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Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, this week told the Commons that she plans to open a review into the future of the BBC’s funding. It comes after she said the next announcement about the licence fee will be the last. Addressing MPs in Parliament, she explained: “The BBC has been entertaining and informing us for 100 years, and I want it to continue to thrive and be a global beacon in the UK and in the decades to come.

“But this is 2022, not 1922. We need a BBC that is forward-looking and ready to meet the challenges of modern broadcasting.”

Ms Dorries had before this said it was time to explore news ways to find and sell “great British content,” and that the “days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors” were over.

The Government recently announced that the licence fee will be frozen at £159-a-year before rising slightly the following three years.

Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, said the broadcaster’s services and shows will now have to be cut because of a funding gap from the latest deal.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said it “will affect our frontline output,” and when asked what might be cut, he added that, “everything’s on the agenda”.

The BBC currently receives £3.7billion-a-year to fund services like TV, radio, its website, podcasts, iPlayer and apps.

The licence fee was first introduced by the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1923 that cost ten shillings (50p) per year.

It was extended to TVs in 1946 at the cost of £2, and people could opt to have a TV licence, a radio licence or a combined TV and radio licence.

However, the radio part was abolished in February 1971 — a separate licence for car radios was also scrapped — with the TV licence from that point on covering all content put out by the BBC.

Debates about the radio licence were rife in Parliament in the late Sixties, as archive documents show, when it was decided that the radio licence fee would be stripped from the wider licence fee because of the rise and success of other commercial radio stations, as well as the emergence of colour TV.

In a speech given on July 22, 1969, Paul Bryan, then Conservative MP for Howden, who died in 2004, reasoned that the radio licence was no longer permissible given the availability of commercial radio channels elsewhere — a point which might be applied to today’s debate surrounding the TV licence fee.

He noted how in the Fifties and Sixties the emergence of commercial television had “stimulated the BBC into better programmes and people enjoyed a better choice”, despite unrealised pledges by the Labour Party to abolish commercial television as soon as they came to power.

Mr Bryan went on to argue that the BBC had, by branching out into various different radio channels in order to specialise, in effect become a commercial enterprise in itself.

He said: “For advertising effectiveness, a station likes to attract a complete age or market group to one programme.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it is not compatible with public service broadcasting if, as I suggest, one of its requirements is to educate and lead people towards better things.

“Network broadcasting may or not be an inevitable development, but it should not be adopted without a clear realisation of its implications.”

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The Tory MP concluded that people were now asking what the point of a radio licence was given the existence of other commercial radio stations offering the same thing, and added: “I have considerable respect for the BBC, but I think that one of its faults in the past has been that it has always over-reacted to competition and criticism, be it Mrs Whitehouse or Radio Caroline (a music-based British channel established to circumvent the BBC’s monopoly on popular music).

“Radio One was the reaction to, and imitation of, Caroline.

“The new plans are a reaction to the threat of commercial radio.

“The BBC argues that as a national corporation it must have a mass audience, otherwise people will not want to pay the licence fee.

“But it has gone too far. People are now saying, ‘If the BBC production is to be 90 percent neo-commercial, why pay for a licence when we can get this sort of thing from commercial radio?’.”

Mr Bryan’s argument is one that is seen today among many opponents of the TV licence fee.

They say that the broadcaster has become an unnecessary exception in a world where hundreds of commercial TV channels exist, as well as popular subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Many MPs have argued that the BBC’s current financial setup should be switched to a subscription model.


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The argument reflects that which was being made in 1969, indicating that the solution has been known about for 50 years.

John Whittingdale, a former Media Minister, said “core” BBC services like the news and children’s TV should still be funded by the taxpayer, but that any additional content like sports should require an additional fee.

Speaking to the i paper earlier this month, he set out his vision: “Instead of £159 a year, it would be a reduced amount to pay for the things an insufficient amount of people would be willing to pay for – news, current affairs and arts programmes.

“On top of that, two-thirds of the current fee could be a voluntary subscription (for populist programming). You wouldn’t have to pay [for] it.’

He said there were clear “warning signs” for the BBC after one million licences fees were cancelled in the past two years, and added: “That decline in licence fee numbers will only grow.

“The younger generation is much more attuned to the idea of on-demand TV.”

His views were also echoed by Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich, who said he was delighted with the news that the fee would be frozen for the next two years.

He told the East Anglian Daily Times: “It would be better in my view if the BBC moved to a subscription-based model post 2027.

“If you want to watch it great, you can pay the subscription, if you take the decision not to watch the BBC you shouldn’t be forced to pay for it.”

Many, however, maintain that the BBC’s model is world-beating and is crucial if the UK is to keep a public service broadcaster fulfilling its fundamental principle.

After hearing Ms Dorries’ announcement, Fleur Anderson, a Labour shadow minister, suggested that the Culture Secretary’s decision was “unpatriotic”.

She said the BBC World Service was the “envy of the world” and served countries across the globe, stressing it should be protected from cuts.

She added: “Cutting funding to the BBC and the World Service is already leaving the path clear for Russian and Chinese influence in those countries.

“Does she agree with me that only an unpatriotic party would cut the real-terms funding of this national treasure?”

Ms Dorries did not agree, responding that she was “very patriotic”.

Labour MP Chris Bryant accused Ms Dorries of crying “crocodile tears about the cost-of-living crisis”, after she suggested that the licence fee freeze would help families struggling with rising prices and bills.

He said: “What my real fear is, is the Secretary of State simply doesn’t understand how intrinsic to the nature of the BBC and its success around the world is the licence fee.

“She says the BBC gets lots of money, Sky gets five times as much money this year, and its revenues this year have increased by 18.9 percent.

“Yes, this is an unpatriotic move, dismantling one of our greatest British treasures.”

Others have previously said it would take decades for the BBC to switch over to a subscription model like some private companies.

Gill Hind, of media analysts Enders, told The Guardian in 2019: “How do you suddenly stop someone watching BBC One when it’s free to air on Freeview? You can’t do it until the whole world is online.”

Many press services like the BBC’s popular news website would likely have to disappear behind a paywall, experts say.

Ms Hind said another conundrum was how to maintain the current breadth of BBC services if people start picking and choosing their favourite aspects.

She explained: “Your licence fee pays for everything, from news to sport to light entertainment and natural history.

“How do you go about slicing and dicing each of those individual parts?

“You have to think of the importance, especially nowadays, of having a good broadcast news service on TV and radio.

“The BBC gets across cultures and beliefs of different parts of the UK, while Netflix has a US-centric view of the world.”

Currently, the licence fee’s existence is guaranteed until at least December 31, 2027 by the BBC’s royal charter, which sets out the broadcaster’s funding and purpose.

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