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26 April 2003 tbs.pm/2170

The opponents of the licence fee will always remain convinced that it is a ‘forced subscription’ to the BBC. They cannot see the difference between the BBC as a public service organisation and private broadcasters such as Sky that they are not forced to subscribe to.

It is essentially an ideological debate centring on whether we should have public services paid for out of a form of taxation that doesn’t necessarily benefit all those who pay and whether broadcasting should be included in such an arrangement.

To me, the reality is clear: the loss of a BBC funded by all the public would be a national tragedy.

This issue is not really about broadcasting at all. It is about how “collectivist” our national culture is to be and whether the “only users pay” philosophy that rules free market ideology should include broadcasting.

One view is that there are certain things in society that should be paid for by all, for the common good of our culture, even though not all citizens may avail themselves of them.

The railways, National Health Service, roads, schools, law courts and armed forces come into the same philosophical category.

Many people think the BBC is a national cultural asset (though a bit tarnished and confused about its role at present) and that it should be construed as part of the nations heritage and protected with preferential treatment – with commercial broadcasting deemed to be of a lower status.

This not only relates to television as it is important to protect and bolster the BBC role in national radio too – where services like Radios Three and Four and BBC7 could not be viable or their formats maintained, in the commercial sector. Even Radios Two and Five would drift down market if they carried advertising.

One unique feature of the BBC’s core services is that they carry no advertising. Introducing it would render the BBC quite pointless. Any activity handed over to commercial interests will tend to dumb down as audience share becomes the driving factor – unless you have rigid interventionist and quota driven regulation – something so out of fashion that it would be a non starter today.

It is surprising that some people treat the idea of advertising on BBC core services with equanimity. Many people, perhaps mainly those over 40 who grew up in a less consumer driven society, find constant advertising both intrusive and culturally suspect. It is seen to represent a particular market oriented way of running society.

The very existence of proponents of an advertising lead BBC shows how prevailing cultural orthodoxy has been dramatically changed in the last twenty years. It now appears to be a ‘given’ that we will all accept a more commercial undercurrent in all aspects of our lives. There has been a dramatic loss of the tradition that some functions in society may be better run without market considerations.

Sports sponsorship apart, BBC domestic output is one of the few remaining havens from this torrent of consumerism.

The fact that not everyone avails themselves of the BBC should have no bearing on the matter. Not everyone avails themselves of the armed forces, the roads, the NHS or the railways – but we all pay for them. Having these “common good” national services is not paternalism but is an agreement about the building blocks of a properly inclusive society.

The whole issue is really about the role of taxation in the modern state, whether “only users pay” should be allowed to make further inroads as the prevailing ideological philosophy.

If we opt out of paying for the BBC do we need a box on our tax forms where we can tick to opt out of other features of society that we don’t all use?

Is the rampant individualism of the last twenty years to replace the concept of the common good that only twenty-five years ago was universally accepted?

Should we shut down public libraries as only a minority of the population use them?

Once you question the BBC licence fee, lots of other assumptions in our society start to unravel.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Kif Bowden-Smith Contact More by me

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