The BBC today announced that its Director of Vision, George Entwistle, has been appointed as its new Director-General. The man he will replace in the role, Mark Thompson, has not had an easy eight-year tenure. All manner of controversies – from outrageous comedians to erroneously-named cats – have provoked gleeful tabloid furore, some of which may have contributed in 2010 to the freezing of the licence fee for six years at the government’s behest.
It is not hard to see why government-funded broadcasting is a tough sell, not least in these (at least rhetorically) austere times. As a rule of thumb, the men and women in public service who command the most societal respect are those in uniform of some kind: soldiers, nurses and firefighters to name a few. Journalists and faux-folksy TV presenters are, unsurprisingly, deemed less deserving of admiration and ipso facto a chunk of the public purse.
It does not help, either, that the corporation’s coffers are not drawn from the general pool of public money, but instead via a directly levied, independently paid fee. It has long been my suspicion that the reason that Americans are, on average, so hostile to tax is that they are reminded of it every day when they buy almost anything. By bundling VAT into the cost of sticker prices, we Brits escape the constant reminders of the debt we pay to society every time we fancy a new shirt.
The BBC has a rougher ride collecting its dues. Anybody wanting to watch any TV in the UK must pay the annual licence fee, which currently stands at £145.50. That this is a poll tax, that it is regressive and unfair and borderline exploitative, is a point lost neither on those who can hardly afford to pay it, nor on right-wing politicians who have always seen the Beeb as the epitome of institutionally-entrenched leftism.
But I want to make the case not only that the BBC provides value for money for society as a whole, but that it does so in a similar way to how other, more respected public services such as the NHS and the Army do. This has to do with a fairly simple premise, but one with far-reaching and much-fought-over conclusions. It is namely this: that in some situations, and in some respects, the government knows better than you.
Before I am touted as a neo-Stalinist-fascist, let elaborate somewhat. When you went to the doctor last week, or were taught arithmetic in school, you didn’t question the GP’s or teacher’s expertise; if they told you that the itch in your eye is hayfever, or that 7×12=84, you didn’t (or shouldn’t have) questioned them. The same applies in those more Rumsfeldian situations in which you know what you don’t know what certain public services – from espionage to economics – are performed in your interests.
Of course, sometimes those same public servants screw up, which explains the raft of enquiries at present; confidence in certain facets of government, such as politicians and the police, are at an uncommonly low ebb. But the basic premise, that we invest both money and trust in a raft of expert public services to do for us what we would struggle to do for ourselves (diagnose cancer, put out a house fire, teach our children chemistry) still stands. I argue that there is no reason not to extend this allowance to cover the entertainment, public information and lifelong education that the BBC, on the whole successfully, offers us.
This is a tough argument to sustain in our modern digital landscape of TV on demand, multifarious news sources and innumerable mobile devices. We are supremely, complacently accustomed to choosing what we want to watch (or read or listen to) when we want to. Of course, it was the BBC itself which pioneered the adoption of such ease-enhancing online platforms as the iPlayer, the BBC News website and a wide-ranging podcast platform. But content delivery (how you watch) is very different to content preferences (what you watch), and detractors of the licence fee make the superficially compelling case that people who just want to watch Eurosport or Sky Movies have no obligation to subsidise the differing viewing habits of their fellow citizens.
This isn’t a new argument, of course: Coronation Street devotees, for example, who in a roundabout way fund their favourite soap by suffering through five minutes of adverts for 20 minutes of insufferable character drama, may have long bristled at having to pay to keep EastEnders on the air. But the growth of subscription TV and DVD box sets has introduced a ‘pick-&-mix’ attitude amongst more single-minded viewers, for whom the BBC taking the form of liquorice sticks – overly pricey and not really consumed that often anyway.
However, just as doctors can diagnose almost any ailment, and schools aim to provide a comprehensive education, the BBC is at its best when it offers an interesting, important but above all varied assortment of programming. This encompasses both national interest (think PMQs and the Diamond Jubilee) and national interests (think Match of the Day and Strictly Come Dancing), but also leaves room for the sort of content – like high-quality natural history, cutting-edge documentaries, and for some strange reason the Shipping Forecast – that we won’t really know we want until we see or hear it.
I hope that George Entwistle, in taking up his new post, has this mind-set. Notwithstanding the regressive and aggressive way in which its licence fee is collected, publicly funding the BBC is justified because it passes the key litmus test for any publicly funded body: it provides a distinctive, enriching and essential service which we as a society would truly be poorer without. In sum, it’s a price worth paying – and don’t worry, the price will stay the same for a while yet.