As a political prisoner in Egypt between the years 2002-2006, I recall how even the most ardent of convicted jihadi terrorists would rely on their battery- powered pocket radios to catch the news on BBC World Service.
They valued this over all other sources of information because, in a world where state-run news organisations were often mouthpieces for dishonest regimes, the BBC’s honesty and integrity was a gold standard.
To have built up that level of credibility and trust, so that even self-avowed enemies of Britain relied on our news service, is testimony to the achievement of the BBC and decades of reputation-building. It is an achievement too important to be squandered. In a time of “deep fakes” and commercialised American cable “news” producing distorted partisan rubbish, resisting the democratisation of truth for “alternative facts” carries a social value worth subsidising.
Yet as a new chapter in the political dispute between the Government and the BBC unfolds, and battle lines are drawn between progressives and conservatives, it would be odd and inconsistent for the Left to side with a national institution simply because of nostalgia and tradition. It is an institution, and like all institutions it needs to reform.
Downing Street is openly exploring plans to scrap the licence fee and introduce a subscription model, forcing the sale of most of the corporation’s regional radio output. Left-wing and liberal commentators have looked on aghast, accusing the Prime Minister of cultural vandalism. But while this is a necessary debate to be had, to have it along party political lines would be — as is usually the case with our tribal politics — deeply inconsistent.
The BBC is our National Church, and comes replete with its own temples, gods and saints to match. It’s an institution that brings us together and defines our identity as a nation, and has seen us through some very bad times. It’s natural that we should revere it. And like a Church, it has become too holy for its followers, in this case liberals, to touch.
A frequent progressive criticism of religion centres on its tendency to resist change. The Church, or any large institution for that matter, is usually invested heavily in the status quo — slow to adapt and unable to pivot from within. Its supporters are naturally resistant to progress and those on the inside, full to the brim and drunk on the feast, are usually the last to perceive the problem as the rot sets in.
As a progressive, I see that the BBC has become undeniably bloated, squeezing out local competition and stifling start-up innovation. Like with US tech giants, its very size gives it too much power and prevents competition from being able to thrive.
But my desire is not to destroy this famous British institution — I want to reform it, repair it and resurrect it anew. And not before time.
Discontent was brewing long before the Government arrived in Downing Street. Long before excessive executive pay was revealed as an issue, long before the issue of gender pay gaps were settled in court, the BBC followed other major institutions in losing the public’s faith.
The BBC, rather like the Church, also suffered its very own paedophile sex scandal when its revered and untouchable High Priest Jimmy Savile using his position to abuse countless children. After this, it was going to take many years to win back public trust.
The near-monopoly power over British broadcasting, and the institutional heft that comes with this power, is unfairly subsidised by a regressive flat tax that makes it a criminal offence not to pay the licence fee for watching any live programme, on any device — even if not the BBC.
Defenders of the status quo argue that there are many benefits to paying the TV licence of £154.50 a year. The world-class drama and objective news reporting are just the tip of the iceberg, they point out: the BBC represents the best of Britain, an outward-looking institution devoted to high journalistic standards and spreading freedom.
Those are good arguments, yet it still amounts to a pragmatic case for a regressive tax and since when is it progressive to support a flat tax, one that criminalises the most vulnerable in our society, simply because they watch a live CNN broadcast on their mobile device? It is a law that fast appears out of date, out of touch and out of order.
So let us ringfence the BBC’s world-class news and current affairs programmes, perhaps funded by a progressive licence fee, while charging a monthly subscription for entertainment and music. It should never be a criminal offence for refusing to pay for entertainment that one does not consume; that is deeply illiberal.
At this juncture, resisting change can only be done by mounting a nostalgic defence of the status quo, but nostalgia is the last refuge for people who have run out of arguments. British culture in 2020 is a great deal more discerning, independent, and divergent than it has ever been; a digital era no longer requires a deadweight institute from the analogue age.
Like millions of people across the country, in the past couple of years I have begun paying for private subscription services, since when, I cannot recall the last BBC drama that I watched. The days of having to pay a licence because there was no other choice seem long-distant; maintaining that system seems an anachronism.
If — as I am often tempted to do — I were to refuse to pay my TV licence as a matter of principle, while readily admitting to watching non-BBC live TV on multiple devices, and announced this very publicly and openly over my social media channels, perhaps even via a live broadcast on one of my digital platforms, would progressives support my potential criminalisation for that refusal? Would they support my imprisonment— which is still a punishment for those who refuse to pay up? I should be incredibly surprised.
The licence fee is simply unfair, unprogressive and unsustainable. It belongs firmly in the top-down world of the last century. The BBC saw us through two world wars, and was there back when we sorely needed it. During our Darkest Hour, our national psyche, our culture and our national morale were spurred on by this all-unifying, singular British broadcast.
Well, job done. Thank you very much, Aunty. But isn’t it time we all moved on.