The licence fee is a unique broadcasting arrangement. It started out as a permit to receive broadcasts, and originally cost about the same as a dog licence. You had the choice to have a dog or not to have a dog and, back then, the choice to have or not have a wireless set.
The only licensed broadcasters were the British Broadcasting Company (later Corporation), so the few shillings you paid for your licence from the Post Office mainly went to them.
Right and proper, in principle, because the BBC was a ‘public service broadcaster’, at least in name.
By 1936 these paltry sums from radio listeners were sufficient, it seems, to finance the World’s first public television service, though. there being no imaginable propaganda value in television in those innocent times, the whole thing was mothballed at the outbreak of World War II.
When it resumed, it was no longer the staggering, amateurish thing it had been pre-war. There had been a big influx of talent; entertainers, musicians, writers, directors and boffins – mainly people brought to both the arts and emerging technology while in the armed services and their entertainment division, ENSA.
Within a short time, television moved from novelty to drama and comedy production and, with the decision (and gracious royal permission) to televise the Coronation of Her Majesty, the present Queen, from a rich man’s toy to a must have.
A mere two years into the new queen’s reign, Britain acquired a second public service television broadcaster, the similarly unique ITV. So-called Independent TeleVision raised money through advertising and various commercial connections, so it could put on much more extravagant things than could be paid for by the pocket money the Beeb had to make do with.
Thus began the rise in cost of the Television Licence and increasing pressure on TV set owners to pay it, the BBC eventually employing broadcast detector vans and actual (though questionable) legal enforcement on the viewing public – even if they chose to watch only ITV, which received none of the proceeds.
Of course, there has always been debate about whether the BBC was in the service of the public or the powers that be. It had a theoretical charter of strict impartiality which tended to make it more toothless than inclusive, and it probably wouldn’t have realised there were ordinary folk in existence if it hadn’t been for ITV exposing them on Coronation Street. Likewise, it had such a deference for authority that it had never questioned a political leader or member of the upper crust until ITN (Independent Television News) crashed onto the scene in 1955.
The more licence collection became enforced and belligerent, the more people came to resent it.
But BBC types were envious of the bigger budgets at ITV, whom they felt the need to imitate. Furthermore, the more commercially oriented people at ITV, under the direction of rare geniuses such as Lew Grade – ‘We spread our bread upon the water and hope that it comes back as smoked salmon sandwiches’ – , began to sell their products abroad for even bigger money, which in turn sponsored still glossier programmes with still bigger budgets.
During the Falklands debacle, Mother Thatcher had finally got the idea about Television and propaganda. The BBC and the ITV might be nominally there for the public but, to her mind, it was their patriotic duty to place themselves at the service of her government.
The BBC rolled over, carrying nightly po-faced official briefings that looked like something out of Duck Soup. ‘Hail Freedonia!’ Only ex-ITN newsman Robin Day provided a dissenting voice, causing then Defence Secretary John Nott to have a hissy fit and flounce out of the studio.
That was enough for Thatcher who set out to neuter both organisations for their respective treasons in not glorifying her war. ITV was dismantled by her rewriting of the franchise set up to exclude small local companies and impoverish the majors. The job of taking the wind out of the BBC was later completed by Thatcher’s homunculus, Blair, when it let the cat out of the bag on his weapons of mass destruction, and Greg Dyke, the corporation’s most capable Director General. was forced to resign.
Despite public marketing slogans claiming ‘it’s your BBC’, it’s been so compromised and become so propitiative to dark forces that it seems to be anybody’s and nobody’s these days, helping to explain its abandonment of the iconic Television Centre in London, the very symbol of its glory days, for sanctuary in the new media fortress in Salford, Lancashire, where its news personnel are reduced to interviewing each other.
Its claims to balance and impartiality are mostly fictional. It has always taken one side – materialism, Darwinism, global warming, the medical monopoly – against all comers; has unapologetically put out faked ‘crisis actor’ sequences as news and prostituted its once-respected Panorama strand to the screaming personal vendettas of the visibly unbalanced John Sweeney.
During the 60s and 70s, despite the competition from ITV, much of the corporation’s output was garnering well in excess of 20 million viewers. Since then, whatever the excuses about fragmentation, for which the BBC was one of the prime movers, viewing figures and quality have sagged, while budgets have soared. From the kind of quality TV drama once done with fine actors and writers as a kind of people’s theatre, most drama is now shot as if it is a feature film, with plenty of visuals but little use for writers or actors. All fur coat and no drawers.
We’re currently promised a drama series on Troy that will cost two million quid an episode. Spot the public service element in this if you can, and figure out how many licence fees will self-destruct per screen minute.
But the current DG will point out that the thing will be sold all over the world and more than make back its investment.
To which we are forced to ask, ‘Whose investment?’
The licence fee was extracted with menaces, it enabled the corporation to do whatever whimsical thing it thought fit to do with it, and it gets to keep the profits.
Some deal. Our BBC, huh?
Those of us who grew up with it all miss the old Beeb. But it’s already dead and gone. Dumbed down, commercialised and, in every other sense than the public funding that removes the necessity (or excuse) for commercial breaks, it’s just another broadcaster. It thinks it is providing a public service by putting on something fatuous against something else fatuous on the other channel and getting 15m viewers.
Most of its best classic comedies and dramas are flogged second-hand to other stations where people put up with watching them with ad breaks.
If it is to be stripped of the public fee, let’s hope it can come to an arrangement by which sponsorship and ads on the two main TV channels can generate enough spare cash to support the real jewels in its crown – its radio channels – and the last bastion of culture, BBC4.