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Monday, June 15, 2009

Whither the licence fee?

This morning's Guardian reports that one of Lord Carter's last acts as a Minister will be to publish a report, which includes proposals to take back some of the licence fee from the corporation and use it to pay independent production companies for regional news shows on the ITV network, which can no longer afford them. The cost has been estimated at between £40m and £100m.

This is good news for Wales where successive reports have argued that the £130m digital dividend money available to the BBC should be redirected to guaranteeing a level of plurality in news and current affairs coverage that properly reflects the Welsh way of life and the devolution settlement. The only question will be whether we get the £25 million that we have asked for or just a Barnett share of this money that is likely to come to a significant smaller amount.

There are of course some difficult philosophical issues with this approach. Firstly, I do not accept the argument of the BBC that they alone are entitled to the proceeds of the licence fee or top-slicing it in this way will impact upon the quality of their services. This dividend was raised for a one-off project and is not currently used for programming, as such it is open for reallocation, though there is a case to say that perhaps we should just cut the licence fee and give the money back to viewers. Secondly, the BBC licence fee is already top-sliced and spent outside the Corporation, notably the £100 million or so that goes to S4C. The principle has been established, all we are doing now is negotiating whether it should be applied in this case.

The main issue though has to be what effect such a subsidy will have on ITV itself. We will effectively be creating a second publicly funded public service broadcaster, in competition with a much better funded rival. This is not a reason to avoid this course of action but it does raise questions of accountability.

There are already tried and tested lines of accountability for how the BBC spends the licence fee, will there need to be something similar for ITV? The vast majority of viewers also have a sense of ownership over the BBC to the extent that a small minority of them seek to use the fact that the Corporation is publicly funded to try and censor what they screen. Will the same apply to ITV? What role will Ofcom have in delivering accountability for how this money is spent and regulating the publicly-funded side of ITV's operations? All of this needs to be addressed.

Finally, it is likely that this recommendation, if followed through, will lead to a wider debate on the existence of the licence fee itself. Is it still fit for purpose? Does the rise of digital inclusion, broadband and satellite TV stations outside of UK jurisdiction mean that it has become an obsolete way of funding public service TV? Should the licence fee be abolished altogether and the BBC funded by direct taxation instead? At least then we could be assured that the money had been collected on the basis of ability to pay.

It is time for a debate and hopefully Lord Carter's paper will instigate that discussion. However government must ensure that contributors are not restricted to the usual suspects. Let us hear what ordinary licence fee payers have to say as well.
well speaking as an 'ordinary licence fee payer' ive got no qualms in saying id like to see the costly thing abolished!!!

Think about it everyone has to pay the same for a tv licence whatever their financial circumstances...the duke pays the same as the dustman, to paraphrase thatcher's infamous observation on the hated poll tax...which really is just so unfair!!!

Also the powers the tv licence confers on the state is simply out of all proportion...people (usually from the poorest sections of society) have been jailed for not paying the exorbitant licence fee...and are effectively criminalised for being poor!! In what other countries in the world does something as outrageous as that happen???

Ive long believed advertisiers would be queueing up to advertise inbetween the bbbc's most popular tv shows...also it would mean all those oxbridge types having to go out and get proper jobs like the rest of us instead of enjoying comfortable careers at our expense at the beeb1

Leigh richards
Comment is free but facts are sacred! S4C doesn't receive a penny of licence fee money.

It does however transmit programmes in Welsh produced by the BBC.
Before the establishment of S4C BBC Welsh language TV programmes were broadcast on BBC1. To use this as a precedent for top-slicing is disingenuous. These are BBC programmes, produced by the BBC, with licence-payers money.
S4C receives its advertising revenue and a very large chunk of taxpayers money.

In 2007, the Channel received a grant of over £94m from The Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Exactly, Stonemason. S4C gets its income as a direct grant from DCMS and from advertising. It doesn't get a penny from the licence fee. Peter?
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