Top-slicing: Been there, done that? 

18 July 2009 tbs.pm/1080

FT.com: Archives reveal BBC shared its fee

It was perhaps inevitable that historical research into the BBC’s iicence fee would at some point unearth claims that the fee had previously been nonexclusive to the BBC from time to time, therefore some might extrapolate from this that it’s now ‘acceptable’ for a portion of the fee to be diverted to funding other regional news/whatever they can think of next.

The evidence? It’s no surprise that the Treasury gained up to 12.5% of the licence fee between 1928 and 1962, although bear in mind that this amount would have come under the heading of general taxation as opposed to a specific, additional ‘different’ tax designed for the BBC in particular.

And when the Post Office charged 8% to 9% of the licence fee as a fee collection charge, the physical process of licence fee collection was much more costly before computers were introduced and the widespread adoption of direct debits.

So yes it’s true that there was a “hidden tax” on the BBC between 1928 and 1962, but it was just that – hidden. And hidden taxes are much harder to increase without first revealing a true intention, and this principle also applies to any enforced general taxation; you can’t get away with charging one rate for the BBC and another for everyone else.

Then there’s the reference to the BBC bring ordered to pay £750,000 a year (circa 5 to 6% of the licence fee) for two years to the ITA in the mid-1950s, as a funding request to kickstart the birth of commercial television (which was considered a highly risky and initially unprofitable venture), but in the end this sum wasn’t paid.

If anything this form of temporary payment wasn’t much different from the BBC recently offering to help fund the digital TV switchover (another one-off task), even though Mark Thompson himself offered to help fund the switchover as opposed to being asked to by HM Government.

Thompson probably thought that the BBC would inevitably be coerced into doing such a thing anyway (as what happened to RTÉ in Ireland), so openly offering to financially assist the switchover would ensure that the BBC would have more of a say in the matter as opposed to waiting to be reluctantly dictated to. Theoretically.

What does all of this actually prove (if anything), and does it make the BBC’s case against top-slicing any weaker? Well it certainly shows that past governments have attempted to take advantage of the BBC’s licence fee for various purposes and with varying degrees of success, so in this respect nothing is truly ‘new’.

The important point is that none of these past measures were ever used as a prescribed means of permanent funding for a specifically named purpose that lies outside of the BBC’s remit.

At least these ‘revelations’ may force BBC management into upping its game in respect of justifying the corporation’s licence fee claim to outsiders, because if this doesn’t happen then BBC management will have comprehensively failed to protect the corporation from outside forces, even if the ultimate consequences end up being short-lived.