Friday, 21 November 2008

The danger of the telly tax

If there is one thing guaranteed to make an American laugh it is the British television licence. If you don't believe me try it next time you meet one. Generally they don't know about the telly tax and assume the BBC gets its money from advertising and from selling programmes, formats and DVDs. Just in case any Americans are reading this, I must advise you to sit down and keep all liquids well away from your mouth while I explain the BBC and the television licence.

The BBC is not allowed to carry advertising for anything other than its own products so it suffers a budgetry handicap compared to commercial broadcasters. To fill the gap the government hands it lots of money every year, this money is raised by a poll tax imposed on everyone in the UK who owns a television set. It doesn't matter whether they watch BBC programmes, indeed it doesn't matter whether they watch television at all, the mere possession of a set gives rise to a tax liability in the sum of £139.50 for the current year. A television set incapable of receiving colour pictures is taxed at a lower rate, currently £47. And here's the really good bit - it is a criminal offence to fail to pay this tax. Fail to pay £10,000 of income tax and you get charged a bit of interest and a modest lump sum penalty, fail to pay £139.50 in television tax and you get a criminal record. In both cases you still have to pay the tax.

The whole thing is completely barmy. There probably was a time when it made some sort of sense because television broadcasting was in its infancy and had to be paid for somehow. Only a few could afford television sets and only they benefitted from the new medium, so it was fair enough to require them to pay for the privilege. When commercial television stations became established in the 1960s they carried advertising but the television licence to pay for the BBC could still be justified on the ground that the output of the BBC was more wholesome and nourishing to mind and spirit than that of the vulgar people peddling tawdry goods between their shabby shows aimed at the working classes. None of that applies these days, not least because of the BBC's determination to aim its output at the lowest of brows.

I could moan about the compulsory telly tax (and I do), I could moan about the criminal law being used to enforce it (and I do), I could moan about the vast amount of BBC programming which adds nothing to that available from commercial broadcasters (and I do), I could moan about the amount of money the BBC wastes compared to commercial broadcasters (and I do), but none of those moans is my moan du jour. Soup of the day on the moaning menu is that funding anything by way of tax allows politicians to interfere. We saw a fine example of that this week when the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture Media and Sport questioned senior figures from the BBC about the recent incident in which two highly paid loudmouths left obscene and offensive messages on the telephone answering machine of an elderly actor and broadcast the whole sorry episode on a BBC radio show.

It is unlikely that this could have happened at all on commercial radio but if it had the likely outcome would have been immediate dismissal of the presenters, a full and genuine apology on air from the chairman of the radio company and a suitable act of atonement such as payment of a substantial sum to a charity nominated by the victim of the abuse. A line would have been drawn under it in clear and decisive terms so as to minimise damage to the business of the radio company. MPs might well have expressed their disapproval, they might even have called executives from the company before the Select Committee, but they would not have been able to claim any right to dictate editorial policy or tell the executives how they should deal with staff who made a mistake. Because the BBC is funded by tax and MPs vote on the level of that tax they feel they have the right to pontificate on how the BBC should be run. The maddening and saddening thing is that they are correct. Parliament has not only the right but the duty to scrutinise how taxes are spent and to insist on proper standards of management and accountability being present in organisations funded by tax. If only Parliament had the courage to exercise that right and perform that duty with regard to matters under the direct control of the government we might all have something to cheer about, but that is a topic for another day.

The question for today is how it can possibly be justified for politicians to have a legitimate role in editorial policy and internal management decisions of a broadcaster - just one broadcaster out of many in a Britain of hundreds if not thousands of television and radio channels. Many would suggest that the BBC is influenced in its editorial policies by a desire to keep the government of the day happy for fear of its income being cut. There might or might not be something to that although it does not really matter because the vice lies not in whether the BBC actually panders to the government, but in the fact that it could feel the need to do so by reason of the mechanism by which it is funded. In the same way that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done, so the editorial policy of broadcasters should not only be independent of influence by government it should also be seen to be independent of such influence.

This point extends far beyond questions of the quality of BBC programming, whether it should run as many television and radio channels as it does and all the other matters raised whenever the position of the BBC is discussed. My point is over-arching, very simple and (I would suggest) unanswerable.

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