UK TV licensing reform

I’ve always paid my TV licence tax. I used to pay it with a sense of pride, knowing I was contributing to what I believed to be the best broadcaster in the world. I’ve long enjoyed BBC programming, both on TV and radio, the latter also covered by the TV licence tax. Recently I’ve been questioning whether I get value for my money, especially since it’s not anything I can practically opt out of, even if I don’t consume any BBC TV or radio services.

Unfortunately, at least as far as I’m concerned, the BBC doesn’t hold up its end of the Agreement it has with the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the governmental body that regulates the constitutional basis the BBC exists under, by Royal Charter.

My primary criticism is that I believe certain sections of the BBC have damaged their journalistic integrity to a point where I no longer trust what they’re saying to me is impartial. I don’t believe there is editorial independence in some parts of the Corporation. That leads them, in my eyes of course, to break other parts of the agreement, and lose my trust. I therefore don’t believe their own Public Value Test to pass.

That said, practicality and pragmatism means I know I can’t avoid the tax. Its overreaching nature means that even if I was to disavow myself of all BBC content and services, broadcast or online, legally I still need to pay it to watch and or record live television of any kind, from the BBC or not. That’s something I wish to do. So my thoughts have turned to whether my TV licence tax can give me better value for money.

The good thing is, unlike my taxes to government, it’s easy to interrogate just what my money goes towards at the BBC. Money goes in, pretty transparent accounting of what it was spent on comes out. I have access to the full financial statement, which lets me see the breakdown in group expenditure, which is the level I’m most interested in.

Because that information is available to the public, my proposal is a relatively simple one: when paying the tax, allow the payer to choose what groups inside the BBC receive the main portion of the tax amount. The TV license tax is split up by the BBC, and the majority goes to funding the individual groups inside the Corporation, which produce content.

So, let the payer assign part of the tax directly to certain groups that they most value the content from, to allow the payer to directly fund them. There are other technical methods that could be employed to make the bias more accurate, but they’re outside the scope of this essay. The corollary is that the payer can therefore divert funds away from the parts of the BBC they deem don’t provide value. In my particular case I’d get to defund BBC One by not choosing them when I pay the tax.

My gut feeling is that free market economics would kick in. Say a sizeable group of people felt the same way as me and, using a proportional funding scheme, BBC One found itself with say 15% less income than it did the year before. It would be forced to ask the public why — it could even directly ask those that defunded it, because that would be recorded alongside the tax payment — and adjust its programming to compete for that lost income accordingly.

A very welcome secondary benefit is that the payer would be made aware of bits of the BBC that it might not have seen before. If all of the groups were presented to you at application or renewal time, fighting for your proportional assignment of your money, you’d get to see the more marginal or niche groups that you might want to directly fund.

Ideally, the tax would be reformed completely so that it could be avoided in full if you didn’t want to watch or record live BBC content at all. That could be enforced easily via technical means. Until that becomes a reality, I feel that the BBC has a duty to let me better choose which parts of the Corporation I want to support, until I, and not necessarily the Trust, decide that the groups I don’t draw value or trust from have regained it. I believe the best way to do that today is to allow me to withdraw my portion of their funding and let my money do the talking.