Brits debate a free BBC

Stephen Beard Jul 7, 2008

Brits debate a free BBC

Stephen Beard Jul 7, 2008


Renita Jablonski: One of the world’s best known public broadcasters will publish its annual report. The BBC will open its books and explain how it’s spent its annual revenue of more than $6 billion.

The bulk of the BBC’s money comes from a kind of tax called the license fee — not something every Brit likes to pay for. Stephen Beard reports from London.

Stephen Beard: The BBC has been broadcasting this rather sinister message:

BBC Ad: Your town. Your street. Your home. It’s all in our database.

A helicopter hovers. A dog barks. There’s a knock on the door. The message: It’s a criminal offense to watch TV without buying a license.

BBC Ad: And impossible to hide if you don’t. It’s all in the database.

The Orwellian tone has infuriated Eamon Butler of the free market think tank The Adam Smith Institute:

Eamon Butler: I think it’s absolutely outrageous that public authorities should be able to bully the general public by television adverts which suggest they’re all criminals and that they’re going to get police helicopters and dogs on them.

It’s a fact of life in Britain: If you own a TV, you must buy a license, currently costing $260 a year. That’s how the BBC supports itself. But the license fee ad has triggered a fresh debate about this system.

Jonathon Miller: If you were to try to invent a really bad way of financing public broadcasting, you’d come up with a license fee.

Jonathon Miller has waged a long campaign against the license fee. He says this $6 billion a year subsidy for the BBC is unfair.

Miller: Forces people to pay for a service whether they like it or not. It doesn’t even matter whether you watch the BBC programs. You have to pay it just to own a TV set.

Show segue: Welcome to The Weakest Link. Any of the nine people in the studio here today could win up to 9,000 pounds.

He says that with brainless quiz shows and lots of other populist fare the BBC shouldn’t get a public subsidy. But the BBC has it supporters:

Ben Fenton: It produces some astonishingly good television, some very, very good radio.

Ben Fenton of The Financial Times claims the license fee is a better way of paying for public broadcasting than the American system of telethons, corporate sponsorship and government funding.

Fenton: I think that what is produced on the BBC is of marketably higher quality than one gets, I’m sorry to say this, on public service broadcasting in the United States.

Ouch. But at least the American system is voluntary, and therefore may prove more durable than the British license fee.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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