Daily Telegraph 23-10-02


DAILY TELEGRAPH

The BBC's licence fee is a poll tax - pull the plug


By Stephen Robinson
(Filed: 23/10/2002)


Imagine for a moment that you went to your local newsagent to buy your
preferred newspaper. You might need it for its superior television
listings, or its comprehensive stock prices, or its peerless weather
forecasts. Then imagine being told that the Government had decreed that
you could only buy your newspaper if you also paid for the Daily Mirror,
the Sun and Hello!

You would think that ridiculous, unjust and probably illegal. But that,
essentially, is how the BBC's licence fee works - as a mandatory
financial barrier to a viewer's right to choose other television
stations. Even if you have already paid separately by subscription, you
cannot watch live Premiership football on Sky, or the latest episode of
Friends on E4, unless you pay your poll tax to Broadcasting House.

The licence was invented to pay for a single television channel at a
time when there was no other option. If television were invented today
in its current multi-channel format, it is inconceivable that it would
be funded in the same way. The #112 annual charge has come to be nothing
more than a tax on television sets, which get cheaper in real terms as
the licence continues its inflation-busting upward spiral.

I hold no particular grudge against the BBC. Many readers of this
newspaper believe the BBC to be monstrously biased in favour of Labour.
I gather that some members of the Countryside Alliance - and they are
likely to be Daily Telegraph readers - are so incensed by the BBC's
dismissive coverage of the Liberty and Livelihood March that they are
contemplating a mass boycott of the licence fee to punish the BBC for
its anti-hunting bias.

They are right up to a point: the BBC is culturally biased towards New
Labour, and is hopelessly undermined in defending itself from this
charge by the clear political affiliations of its chairman and its
director general, Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke.

I experience this bias first-hand during occasional outings on the Nicky
Campbell Show on Radio 5 Live, when I am expected to play the role of
pro-American, Right-wing nutter simply because I work for The Daily
Telegraph. The format tends to go like this: Mr Campbell reads out
something from the Independent, and then invites callers to lay into the
man from the Telegraph. It's perfectly harmless, it keeps one on one's
toes, and I confess I rather enjoy it.

Let us be fair and acknowledge that much of the BBC's output is
excellent, particularly on the radio. I listen to Today even as I grind
my teeth at Jim Naughtie's unctuous deference to Labour ministers. I
cannot abide the whining entitlement assumptions of You and Yours. But
there is a lot of outstanding output during the day: I have special
respect for the peerless World at One on Radio 4, the best current
affairs programme I have encountered anywhere in the world.

It is not the BBC's bias that is so repugnant, so much as the crassness
of much of the output, and my rage is compounded by the illiberalism of
the licence fee. I don't get angry about an article that I don't like in
the Guardian or the Daily Mail - because I don't have to pay for it -
but I am forced to pay for the BBC, which doesn't even have Match of the
Day any more. I am also paying for a raft of digital television channels
that I cannot receive, plus the burgeoning website that, though
apparently popular in China, is of no interest to me.

When we launched our Free Country campaign last summer, we were
astonished by our readers' anger at the tactics of the inspectors who
work for TV Licensing, the paramilitary wing of the BBC. These are the
people who send menacing literature through the post, warning people
like your mother that there is no place to hide when BBC inspectors come
to call. Scores of readers who do not own a television set wrote to
complain about inspectors' assumption that, if you had no licence, you
must be a criminal.

For those who do have televisions but no licence, there might eventually
be an appointment in a magistrates' court. On conviction, they typically
face a #100 fine, plus #45 costs. Most of these defendants tend to be
poor people on housing estates, and thus far the BBC has been curiously
shy of taking on more formidable targets.

But now it may have a real battle on its hands, for a journalist called
Jonathan Miller has publicly declared his refusal to buy a licence, and
invited the BBC to take him to court. His defence is ingenious, and
could conceivably render the debate about the extension of the licence
fee beyond its current renewal date of 2006 redundant.

Mr Miller has scoured the Human Rights Act of 1998 and, in article 10 of
the European Convention on Human Rights, found a clause that might well
force a fundamental change in the BBC's funding regime: "Everyone has
the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to
hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without
interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers."

This would seem to be an unambiguous prohibition on governments that
might seek to restrict an individual's right to receive broadcast
information. And it is perfectly logical: after all, how would the
Foreign Office react if Robert Mugabe, say, imposed a tax on Zimbabweans
tuning in to the BBC World Service? We might think that a rather bad
thing.

The BBC has hired a leading silk, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, for advice
on the case, but Mr Miller says that, after taking legal advice, he has
reason to be confident he will prevail. The BBC is right to be
concerned, for already there is insurrectionary talk on the internet
about a boycott of the licence fee, and leaflets are circulating around
housing estates advising people how to stand up to the inspectors.

I find myself confused, because there is so much that is good about the
BBC. But the current funding arrangement is illiberal and, in the end,
Auntie will lose the argument. The trick in the meantime is for the BBC
to come up with a better plan for funding itself and not waste its - or
my - money in legal fees, defending the indefensible.