The rise is just the last straw for consumers who have grown disillusioned with the national broadcaster and resentful at being forced to pay a licence fee when they are spending more and more of their time watching other platforms.
Those platforms are becoming more expensive, too. Netflix, for instance, announced just a couple of weeks ago that the price of its standard monthly package will increase by £1 and its premium package will cost £2 more a month. You don’t have to be a genius at maths to work out that’s a lot more than £1.50 a year and yet it has not provoked the anger the BBC is facing.
Recent surveys by newspapers and radio stations have shown a huge majority of BBC television viewers would consider a boycott, such is their opposition to the licence fee rise.
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There are a number of reasons for this. For a start, the rise for other platforms isn’t compulsory. You can go for a cheaper package, or cancel your subscription altogether. Technically you can stop paying the TV licence, but you may still be fined if you are found to be watching BBC programmes.
Then there is the timing. The licence fee rise comes not long after a controversial decision to scrap the free TV licence given to over-75s.
The blame for that decision arguably lies at the door of the Government, which stopped paying the benefit which covered the free licence – but whoever is responsible, the fact remains that more than three million people who received or were due to receive it are now paying full bung for it. And at £159 a year from April, for many people it’s a not-inconsiderable expense.
And worse, it’s coming as we’re spending much more time at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. At a time when heating, lighting and other domestic costs are also rising, it seems particularly cruel to increase the cost of home entertainment as well.
The huge salaries paid to some presenters and stars also stick in the throats of people struggling to find the money to pay the licence fee. Tweets such as that by Gary Lineker – who is paid £1.35 million by the BBC and posted on social media after the licence fee rise was announced: “But, but I’ve just taken a pay cut” – certainly don’t help.
But there seems to me to be more to it than all that. It’s hardly surprising that we regard the BBC as a national broadcaster. We have, after all, been encouraged for decades to do just that. That “national” status brings with it responsibilities and there are signs that more and more of us think the corporation is not living up to those.
Many independence supporters, of course, fell out of love with the BBC during the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum. Since then their complaints that the “national broadcaster” displays obvious bias against the case for independence have only intensified.
Personally I don’t feel all the complaints about bias have been justified and I admit to unease when demonstrators gather outside its Pacific Quay headquarters demanding the sacking of journalists accused of breaching the impartiality code. There are many BBC employees who support independence and many more who strive to hit the right note in BBC broadcasts.
But I do believe there have been and continue to be mistakes made by the BBC. Too many UK (ie London-based) news reports continue to ignore or misunderstand devolution. Too many unsubstantiated claimed by some politicians are regarded as true without any real interrogation. There have been apologies, most notably for a 2018 report on News at
One wrongly saying the Scottish Government spent £13.5 billion more than it raised and two years later when Scotland editor Sarah Smith “mistakenly” told viewers that Nicola Sturgeon “enjoyed the opportunity to set her own lockdown rules”.
But individual apologies don’t address structural and cultural flaws.
Worryingly for the BBC it’s not only independence supporters who are unhappy with its coverage of increasingly fractious political debates. It’s been accused of being simultaneously too right wing, too soft on and too close to Conservative politicians, too lefty liberal, too progressive, too woke.
TRADITIONALLY the BBC response to criticism is that if it comes from all sides of the political spectrum it must be doing something right but there is another way to look at the problem – it is doing too many things which are wrong.
Too often the BBC’s response to complaints has been silence or complacency. Valid complaints – for example over audience and panel selection on Question Time – are deemed not worthy of meaningful answers. I’ve been at BBC-led discussions of the 2014 referendum coverage which ended with executives smugly deciding the corporation’s performance had been just peachy.
It’s not just the BBC’s news output that attracts criticism. Its Scottish drama output is dismal, with the exceptions of the fantastic Shetland and Guilt. Also on the plus side, The Nine news show has been a step in the right direction, even if a 6pm national news show edited entirely from Scotland would have been better.
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The main point I’d make is that when we vote for independence – hopefully soon after the Scottish elections in May – we need to take big decisions on the future of broadcasting in a new Scotland. What do we expect from a “national broadcaster”? Indeed do we even need such a thing? I’d argue that it’s time to have a national conversation around these and other media issues. How do we fund broadcasting? How can we make broadcasting genuinely accountable but protected from political interference? How can we afford high-quality drama that genuinely reflects the country we live in?
These are huge questions and we’re not going to come up with the right answers by simply replicating the arrangements and devolved structures we currently have.
And while we’re at it we might consider widening the conversation to include the future of Scottish journalism in general, the business model for which – certainly in print – was struggling even before the pandemic ravaged advertising revenues and distribution.
A “short-life” working group to consider ways of supporting what it describes as “public interest” journalism has been set up by the Scottish Government and is expected to make recommendations at the end of the summer.
Clearly this group has a lot of work to do. Its recommendations are almost certain to be torn apart by sections/most of the Scottish press, particularly if they involve some form of public subsidy. That doesn’t mean they should rule it out.