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Scrap the BBC Licence Fee: Pay More, Get Less

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As a sales pitch, perhaps it leaves something to be desired. "Pay more, get less." Who could resist?

Yet for reasons that I have never understood, that's exactly what's on offer from those people who argue that it's time to scrap the BBC licence fee and switch to some form of subscription-based financing.

They're such easy slogans, aren't they? Scrap the BBC tax. Get rid of the bloated bureaucracy. Make the newsroom's lefties/Tories (delete according to taste) live in the real world.

Easy, but dangerous. And wrong. It's time to start fighting for the BBC - and for the licence fee, set at a realistic level to enable the BBC to do what the vast majority of people want it to do: make good programmes, aimed at a wide cross-section of British society, as efficiently and creatively as is humanly possible.

(Declaration of interest: for more than 20 years I earned my living as a BBC broadcaster. If you feel that my experience disqualifies me from commenting on the corporation's future, you may stop reading now.)

The current licence fee costs £145.50 a year. That's 40p a day. I'll say it again: 40p a day. It's less than half what you pay for The Times at a station bookstall; a quarter what you pay for the Guardian, it's even less than you'd pay for The Sun. It's the equivalent of about one-fifth of one cup of coffee at any major coffee shop.

And for your 40p licence fee, you get, picking just a few programmes at random: The Archers, David Attenborough, Strictly Come Dancing, Test Match Special, all those wonderful Nordic noir dramas on BBC4, the Proms, the Olympics, Wimbledon, Doctor Who, Frozen Planet, The Thick of It, Mrs Brown's Boys, Miranda, Radio 3, The World Tonight, and Great British Bake-Off.

All that, and don't forget everything the BBC produces online, the World Service (on radio, TV and online, in English and 27 other languages), the iPlayer, the Asian Network, 6 Extra, 5Live, and the News Channel. How anyone can argue that it's not astoundingly good value simply beggars belief.

So why am I writing about this now? Because the BBC, not for the first time, is under attack. Not from the people who pay for it - they, by an overwhelming majority, like it, use it, and wish it to survive - but by vested interests who see it as a threat. Politicians, who resent the fact that although they control the bulk of its income, they can't control its output, and commercial rivals who see it as unfair, publicly-funded competition in a highly competitive global entertainment market.

It's not always been easy to defend the BBC after the crises of the past couple of years. It is as good at damaging itself as it is at making world-class programmes. It is a cumbersome beast, often resembling a giant ocean-going liner in its inability to change direction or react to a crisis. But it is one of the institutions that foreigners most admire about Britain, and that Britons most value. It is a public good, just like the NHS and a free press.

At a conference on Thursday at City University, London, the BBC's director general, Tony Hall, unveiled a new strategy that would enable non-BBC producers to pitch more ideas to the BBC, and BBC producers to pitch ideas to non-BBC outlets. "Competition is good for the BBC and I want more of it," he said.

"I want our commissioners to be able to choose from the best ideas ... This is about us having the next Sherlock (produced by an independent company), the next Strictly (produced in-house), the next Springwatch (in-house) and the next Shetland (in-house)- a fantastic mix from independent and BBC producers."

It's a shrewd move, enabling the BBC to argue that it's offering more airtime to more independent producers, and offering its own producers more opportunities to take their ideas outside the BBC. More competition, goes the argument, encourages more creativity and better value.

But it doesn't mean that the pressure on the licence fee will go away. Another idea floated at yesterday's conference came from the chairman of Channel 4, the former top Treasury official Lord Burns. Why not at least force people who use BBC iPlayer to prove that they have a TV licence? Encrypt the signal online so that access is restricted to those who can provide either a password or a licence number - it's not an additional cost, but it is a way of ensuring that those people who should pay, do pay.

And how about collecting the licence fee as part of the council tax? They're both household taxes after all, and combining the collection of them both could well save money.

Here's the nub of the issue: if you decided to scrap the licence fee tomorrow, it would take anything up to 15 years to replace the estimated 20million Freeview boxes which at present can't be encrypted to block free access to BBC programmes. It would also cost anything up to £500 million to make the switch.

Add in the cost of administering a subscription service, factor in the inevitable loss of the least popular services such as Radio 3 and children's programming, set a price structure that would enable the BBC to compete with its commercial rivals -- all that, to scrap a "tax" of 40p a day?

"Pay more, get less." In which parallel universe is that a sensible proposition?

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