“Scrap the BBC!” Mk II

The BBC is likely to become very small, or even disappear, if not paying the TV Licence fee becomes a civil offence (is decriminalised, in the jargon). What an extraordinary turn-up for those of us who thought the BBC an absurdity but also thought that its dismemberment would probably have to wait a generation. That is roughly where I was when I wrote “Scrap the BBC!” in 2006. Here is how things might turn out….

Let’s map a chain of future events. The licence fee is de-criminalised. This results in the encryption of most BBC transmissions, the better to allow them to be put on a subscriber rather than a licence fee basis. People then campaign for their subscription to be “bundled” into the services they actually consume. Some services become ad-sponsored and remain free-to-air. Broadband consumers of BBC material complain that they now have to pay for what many had had for free, as non-licence payers. But their case is countered by the Guardian as it argues, from behind its new paywall, that everything must be paid-for somehow. (OK, that’s a different dream….)

As the BBC’s services become bundled, its case that it is a vital one-size-fits-all behemoth collapses and it is seen instead as an unsavoury self-serving monopolistic enterprise, rather as depicted in its own ironic show WIA. It is broken up, and some bits are sold to commercial interests. Quite possibly, a new Big Society entity (perhaps a new National Media Trust) buys or is given bits of the BBC which the market might not support. The Government of the day promises that free subscriptions to some media services will be, er, bundled with their benefits.

I have no idea if this is the hidden agenda of those Tories who argue for decriminalisation. Indeed, if I were a very influential voice, I would probably not make the above remarks, for fear of sparking an anti-decriminalisation counter-move. And in any case, it is usually right to caution that reforms of every sort can often go into a multi-generational drift.

As it stands, though, it looks as though decriminalisation mightl be the trigger which fires a gun which has been primed by many other arguments to do with technological, cultural and political changes in the world in which the BBC and other broadcasters operate.

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Publication date

24 March 2014