Well, that was surprising. The BBC has announced that from 2020 it will do away with free TV licences for the over-75s. In future, free licences will only be available to households which have at least one member receiving pension credit. Everyone else will have to pay the full whack of £154.50 a year. In defence of its decision, the BBC cites the results of a consultation, 52 per cent of the 190,000 respondents to which it says were approving of its decision to end blanket TV licences for the over-75s.
Let’s skate over other recent democratic exercise where 52 per cent of the population were in favour of something but which the BBC often seems less than enthusiastic about accepting. But of course the consultation came up with that result. It presented the subject as an issue of intergenerational fairness, effectively asking younger TV-owners: do you want to pay more for your licence in order to subsidise the elderly? It failed to ask a more fundamental question: do you think the TV licence fee (no, let’s call it the tax that it is) should exist, or should the BBC be put on a proper commercial footing and made to raise its funds like every other broadcaster: either through advertising, subscriptions or a mixture of the two?
But then expecting the BBC to consult on this would be like expecting the turkey community to consult on Christmas. It was utterly ridiculous for the government to delegate the question of TV licences for the over-75s to the BBC itself. Presumably the government thought that by allowing the BBC to decide whether the concession should continue it would take the political sting out of the issue.
But I wouldn’t count on that. Theresa May is leaving a political timebomb for her successor. The government is not going to be able to wriggle out of it when, as is inevitable, thousands of over-75s start to be hauled through the courts for non-payment of the licence tax, failing to realise why they suddenly need a licence to watch the TV when they haven’t needed one for years. The blame is going to land very squarely at the feet of ministers.
In its arrogance, the BBC will count today as a victory. It has already been allowed to retain the TV licence tax decades after it ceased to have any justification. The BBC’s pretence to be a public service broadcaster has been reduced to a few offerings like the shipping forecast. Most of the time it is openly trying to compete with commercial broadcasters, brazenly arguing that it needs to offer its presenters fat salaries in order to compete with the private sector – putting aside the obvious objection that a public sector broadcaster should not, by definition, be competing with the commercial sector.
But ultimately the BBC will destroy itself through its own arrogance. The threat will not come from the over-75s but from the other end of the generational divide.
Increasingly, the young are going to be asking themselves: why on Earth would I want to pay for a TV licence? I can get all the entertainment I want online, through YouTube, Netflix or through catch-up services from commercial broadcasters. The BBC carries little live sport any more – and in the few cases where it does broadcast a live match I want to watch I can catch it down at the pub instead.
If the BBC were to recognise the threat to its own existence now, and agree with the government a path to proper commercialisation of its services, phasing out the licence tax, it could save itself. But it won’t. Instead, it is going to hold on tightly to the comfort blanket that is the licence tax, ever begging the government for permission to jack it up or extend its scope, while it gradually withers.