BBC Television License

Cambridge 2000 memos

March 2001

The BBC television license is a UK anachronism which would bemuse the citizens of most countries of the world. The BBC is State television, but State television which is run by an elite nebulous clique rather than directly by the government of the day (which fortunately changes often enough not to get entrenched). The BBC is funded mainly by the television license, which is just over 100 pounds per year for anyone who uses a (colour) TV, whether or not the BBC is ever watched.

This kind of patronising and paternalistic funding system was perhaps appropriate in the 1950s but is not in the 21st century. It is a regressive form of taxation (the poor pay as much as the rich) and since almost everyone owns a TV it is a ridiculously inefficient method of collecting the tax, including armies of people roaming the land looking for people who have not paid the tax. It would make much more sense to use money from general taxation to fund the BBC, assuming it needs to be funded by the State at all.

Even people who do not have TVs would probably prefer to have the BBC funded from general taxation. If you do not use a TV, and so do not need a license, you are often harrassed by the TV licensing authority, who do not believe you ("surely everybody must watch TV in this day and age"). To pay 100 pounds of extra general (e.g. income or sales) tax every year is surely better than being harrassed by the State.

Most State services are paid for out of general taxation although most people do not benefit from the services, the BBC is one example where most people do benefit, and more or less equally, since most people (certainly most taxpayers) do have a TV or access to a TV and watch the BBC.

There is the related question of whether the BBC should be State funded at all. The BBC is a non-commercial service but as anyone who has ever watched British TV knows, the BBC makes some of the best advertisements in the UK, full of fancy graphics and often quite powerful. Only these advertisements are not for general commercial products but for the BBC itself (mainly for its programmes but including plugs for its own commercial products). What's the difference?

The BBC no longer produces TV that is of any better quality than the commercial stations, indeed it is full of superficial and condescending food, gardening and DIY programmes that would fit perfectly well in a normal commercial environment. The BBC is no longer particularly needed, but there is a huge vested interest amongst the selected elite to have the State continue paying for their soapbox.

Further, the BBC is encroaching on other commercial areas, using its muscle to push out or dwarf commercial competitors. The internet is the latest example, where the BBC produces one of the best UK websites knowing full well that it has the financial and marketing clout to make a success of it, whereas its competitors have to sink or swim in the real world.

Cambridge 2000 memos