After speaking with some of my constituents about TV licences for the over-75s, I promised to provide my view.
The BBC’s decision to stop funding free TV licences for most over-75s is disappointing. The Government’s position on the licence fee is as follows:
It is important to note that this was the BBC’s decision and not the Government’s, after Parliament legislated to give the BBC the full responsibility from 2020. This was part of a deal the Government reached with the BBC over four years ago, which the BBC described as a good deal that provided financial stability to the organisation through inflation-linked increases of the licence fee and the closure of the so-called iPlayer loophole.
I appreciate some voters in Wycombe see this as a blame game. There is a conversation to be had about the role of public service broadcasting in the technologically diverse age in which we now find ourselves.
The Centre for Policy Studies published a report on 1 September 2016, titled ‘Licence to Kill: Funding the BBC’. It argues “the licence fee is bad for the BBC and bad for customers – and it should be abolished”. As early as the mid-eighties, Peter Warry, deputy head of the Number 10 policy unit, advised Margaret Thatcher that new technologies “would undermine the justification for the licence by the 1990s”. On the other hand, the BBC argue that the licence fee: “allows it to run a wide range of popular public services for everyone, free of adverts and independent of advertisers, shareholders or political interests”. Pivotally, without the licence fee, how will the BBC survive? This money provides 70 per cent of its total revenues.
It is my parents’ generation that is largely engaged, and impacted, by the BBC’s decision to scrap free TV licences for the over-75s. I can understand and empathise with them over the reasons why. Their generation will remember when children of my generation were raised with only three television channels; two were the BBC. I was just 11 years old when Channel 4 was launched, a watershed moment in the television and entertainment industry.
Fast forward to the present day and television and entertainment has grown at light speed – the industry has been dramatically transformed. We find ourselves able to access a myriad of sources, including the internet and radio, to inform and entertain during these difficult times. Where radio is concerned, Ofcom’s recent report, titled ‘Media Nations 2020’, suggests more people listen to radio using a digital platform than over analogue and DAB. Perhaps analogue and DAB are scarcely used other than in vehicles? Perhaps the coronavirus lockdowns, and the Government’s ‘stay at home’ message, have accelerated Ofcom’s reported trend even further? Importantly, is the same tendency transpiring in television, where far more viewers are accessing video online, rather than through a physical television? I recognise the variety of ways individuals can access entertainment is now extraordinary and unrecognisable compared to my childhood. I would think the BBC recognises their fee re-directs custom to its profit-hungry competitors too.
This discussion surely isn’t over: technology will continue to advance unrecognisably throughout the century. I know the Secretary of State for DCMS is deeply engaged on this issue, and I look forward to seeing how the conversation about the BBC develops.