We can abolish the TV license – but only if the government stops whining about “bias”

For the first time in a long time – possibly for the first time ever – the UK has a government willing to consider something that had previously been unthinkable: abolishing the hated and outdated television license. Their reasons for bringing up the issue at this precise moment may be questionable, but the policy itself is not. Since the turn of the millennium at least, support for abolishing this hated, regressive tax has only grown, and it’s now one of the most consistently popular policy positions in the entire country.

I’m not a political ideologue. I’m not wedded to one political party nor to a specific ideology, and I’ve voted for practically all of the UK’s major political parties at one time or another over the years. Though I seldom find myself on the same side of the argument as the likes of Nadine Dorries (the current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, within whose brief the BBC and the license fee fall) I’m happy to see that, finally, a British government is bold enough to swing the proverbial axe and finally bring an end to this utterly outdated method of funding a television broadcaster.

Official portrait of Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

But the government is going about this in quite literally the worst way possible, putting forward their least convincing and most polarising argument. This is a cause for concern, because if the ineptitude of people like Nadine Dorries creates an increase in support for the BBC and the television license, the best chance we’ve ever had to abolish the damn thing will be lost. The government, through nothing short of abject stupidity, will have blown the country’s best chance to bring an end to an expensive anachronism, one which isn’t fit for purpose any more. And that would be a travesty.

Before we go any further, a quick reminder on what the television license actually is and how it works. Anyone who watches television in the UK – including some live broadcasts streamed online – is required by law to purchase a television license. The money collected by this tax – and it is a tax, no matter what some may claim – funds the British Broadcasting Corporation, more commonly known as the BBC. The BBC uses this money to pay its way, producing television programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who, Match of the Day, and many more. Failure to pay the television license, even on legitimate grounds, leads to harassment from the BBC’s scarily-named “enforcement division,” who try to act like bailiffs and will even show up at your house to harass you in person. Even if someone never watches any BBC programmes – which, in the days of 500+ satellite and cable television channels is increasingly likely – they’re still forced to pay the tax.

An example of a threatening letter from the TV Licensing organisation.

The television license is, unlike income tax, a regressive tax. Because the fee is the same for everyone, regardless of income or ability to pay, it impacts poor people and those on low or fixed incomes hardest, and while it isn’t the only tax in the UK that behaves this way, it’s by far the most egregious. At the current rate of £159 per year – $217 USD at time of writing – it’s borderline unaffordable for low-income households, especially with a growing cost of living crisis sending food prices, energy bills, and the cost of practically everything else skyrocketing.

This isn’t the first time I’ve brought up the television license here on the website. Almost two years ago I first laid out my argument against this regressive tax, and before we press ahead I think we should recap why I feel the TV tax needs to be scrapped. Firstly, and most importantly, the television license is simply out-of-date. There may have been a justification for this method of funding in the 1960s, but no such justification exists in the 2020s. The world of entertainment has simply moved on, with not only a veritable smorgasbord of television channels to choose from – over 100 of which are free-to-air for anyone with a television set – but also a growing number of subscription services like Netflix and Disney+, with others such as Paramount+ coming soon as well. Not to mention the internet itself and platforms like YouTube. The idea of insisting that every household pay a tax to fund one single television broadcaster is just plain outdated, especially considering that fewer and fewer people watch or engage with the BBC at all. Those days have come and gone.

There hasn’t been a justification for the television license since TVs looked like this.

Next, we have the nature of the tax itself. As mentioned, this is a regressive tax, one which hits poor and low-income folks hardest. As someone on a fixed income myself, I can attest to this. £159 may not sound like much to some people, but for many folks, that could be several months’ worth of disposable income. As inflation rises and prices for everything creep up, the license fee becomes increasingly unaffordable, especially as it’s pegged to rise in line with the government’s official measure of inflation.

Finally, let’s consider what the tax actually pays for: entertainment. The BBC runs a news operation too, and pays a lot of money to bureaucrats and managers in an inefficient fashion, but the bulk of the money raised goes on programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, Line of Duty, EastEnders, Doctor Who, Top Gear, Match of the Day… and the list goes on. What do all of these programmes have in common? They’re commercially viable – meaning that they could be produced by any other commercial broadcaster.

Taxpayers’ money is being used to produce soap operas, reality television, and many other mediocre entertainment products.

Take The Great British Bake Off as a case in point. The BBC used to pay for the show, but when they were outbid by Channel 4, the series retained its popularity and its audience on a different channel. It is simply not acceptable in 2022 that tax money, raised from millions of people who can’t afford to pay the inflated rates, is being used to fund mediocre entertainment programmes that can easily be made by other commercial channels and broadcasters.

This is the winning argument. When it’s explained to people in this way – that the television tax is inflated, unfair, and regressive – abolishing it is not just popular, it’s the only argument that makes any sense, and there really can’t be any counter-argument that isn’t just obfuscation or that tries to shift the goalposts. By sticking to arguments about the inherent unfairness of the tax and the fact that it’s utterly outdated in a modern media landscape, the government – and campaigners like me – will win.

Logo of the TV Licensing organisation.

But this isn’t the way that the current government is trying to go. By talking about “bias” within the BBC they come across as whining – and worse, they come across as trying to punish the organisation for not giving them kinder, more fawning coverage. It’s Trumpian in the extreme, with echoes of Trump’s famous “fake news” attack, which he levied at any journalist or broadcaster who dared question him or call him out.

By using the “bias” argument, the government is going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, further polarise the political discourse in the UK, and fail in its stated goal of reforming the way in which the BBC is funded. The current government is sufficiently unpopular right now that any organisation that they criticise is going to receive a boost in support and popularity. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” – so goes the old adage, and so it will prove to be for many people in this country who would, all else being equal, remain opposed to the television license. But when they see the BBC under attack by an aggressive government, particularly as they seem to be launching this attack at this time to distract from other scandals, they’re far more inclined to support the BBC, and by extension the television license.

There’s a very real sense that the current government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is using the TV tax issue to dodge or distract from scandals and other problems.

Abolishing the television license does not mean abolishing the BBC. The BBC has enough time between now and the end of its current charter in 2027 to find and implement a new funding method. Many folks have suggested a subscription model, with the BBC adopting an approach similar to the likes of Sky or Virgin Media. Others have suggested that the BBC could simply do what every other television channel does and run advertisements. It could even go online, offering a platform comparable to the likes of Netflix. In short, there are options for the BBC to continue to exist and continue to produce its content.

Popular brands and shows could also be auctioned off, and as programmes like The Great British Bake Off have already demonstrated, there are many broadcasters who’d happily snap up the most popular ones. They’d remain viable on other networks – and many would probably do even better on commercial channels or online.

The Great British Bake Off was bought by rival broadcaster Channel 4 a few years ago.

But again, the government’s ham-fisted, idiotic approach to this issue is going to wreck it. If they genuinely want to abolish the television license, they’re already messing it up by putting their worst argument front-and-centre. Claims of “bias” may resonate with some right-wingers, but that’s offputting to practically everyone else in the country. Instead of making this a unifying issue, one which could actually score the government some much-needed kudos, they’re instead managing to drive up support for the BBC and its outdated method of funding, and turning what should be an easy win into a disappointing defeat.

I firmly believe that the abolition of the TV license is only a matter of time. But it would be such a shame if the current government squanders this opportunity through sheer force of incompetence, allowing the vestigial tax to remain in place for years or even a decade longer than necessary. By deliberately turning the TV license into a political issue, Nadine Dorries and her ilk have polarised the debate, lost potential friends and allies, and weakened their own hand. Abolishing the TV license should be a progressive issue – it’s a regressive tax that disproportionately impacts low-income households. But by making it such a polarising political issue in a political climate that is already so deeply divided, the current government is actively pushing away people who should be natural allies in this fight.

My message to them is simple: focus on a winning, unifying argument, and stop whining about “bias.”

In the UK, it is required by law (at time of writing) to purchase a television license in order to watch live TV. This article should not be interpreted as encouraging anyone to fail to purchase a license if a license is required. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Television licensing is outdated and needs to stop

Readers outside the United Kingdom may not be aware of the concept of a television license. To briefly summarise: in order to be lawfully allowed to watch live television broadcasts on any channel, every British household must purchase a license. Money collected from the television licensing system funds the British Broadcasting Corporation – aka the BBC. The BBC runs several television channels and radio stations.

This funding method has existed in some form since the founding of the BBC in the 1920s, when a radio license was required to receive BBC radio transmissions. Prior to that, a separate license had existed for radio sets since 1906.

During the Second World War, the BBC suspended television broadcasts, and when these resumed in 1946, the first official license specifically for televisions was introduced. Television ownership increased dramatically in the early 1950s – especially in 1953 as people scrambled to watch the Queen’s coronation. And the BBC has kept this funding method ever since.

In those days, it made sense. The BBC was the only television broadcaster in the UK, and it had to get its money from somewhere. By introducing a separate tax – because the TV license is a tax, no matter what anyone may claim – that didn’t go into government coffers, the BBC could be operationally independent from the government, and thus be free to criticise it without accusations of bias.

TV licensing funds the BBC (1980s-90s logo pictured).

The TV license is a tax on television owners. But unlike almost every other tax in the UK, it’s a regressive tax – that is, it disproportionately affects poor people. Most taxes are progressive – i.e. the more money you earn or have, the more you’re supposed to pay in tax as a percentage. Someone earning £14,000 a year pays less tax as a percentage of their income than someone earning £140,000 a year. But the television license costs the same regardless of income and regardless of wealth – meaning for someone on a low income, it’s a much larger cost proportionally. Therefore the television license hits working class and low-income households hardest.

This problem has existed since the TV license was first introduced. In its earliest days, however, it cost a lot less even allowing for inflation. It was only when colour television was introduced in 1968 that costs shot up close to the levels people are paying today. And in 1968, when colour television was a luxury that comparatively few people had, there’s a certain logic in pricing it accordingly. But unfortunately, even as colour television has become universal, the license’s high cost has remained.

A television license, which is valid for twelve months, is currently priced at £157.50 – that’s approximately $195. And in order to stay on the right side of the law, households must pay the license fee every single year without fail. Refusal to do so – even on legitimate grounds – results in harassment from the BBC’s “enforcement division”. They start by writing threatening letters, with BOLD BLOCK CAPITALS warning of an investigation into your lack of a license. They threaten you with in-home visits akin to having a bailiff show up, and often these people will be pushy, rude, and downright aggressive if they do pay you a visit. Even if you tell the TV licensing people that you don’t need to purchase a license as you don’t watch television, the letters still show up every so often.

My fundamental reason for opposing the license fee boils down to this: it’s out of date. In a world with cable and satellite television offering literally 500+ channels, and with the number of basic “freeview” channels approaching 100, forcing every household in the country to pay a tax that funds a tiny number of channels – which many people may not ever watch – is unfair. That’s not to mention the existence of streaming platforms and the internet. In short, the television license may have been well-suited to 1920 – or even 1970 – but there is no justification for it in 2020.

The BBC is a bloated organisation, too, and many of its financial decisions are questionable at best. Public service broadcasting in 2020 needs to fill a niche – it needs to offer something that commercial services aren’t due to those things being non-viable. Strictly Come Dancing, The Great British Bake-Off, Match of the Day, and many, many other shows simply do not fall into this category. Other television networks can – and do – make comparable shows, and the BBC doesn’t even do these shows better than the competition. Even a show like Doctor Who would be snapped up by another network if it were for sale. The cost of some of these programmes runs into the tens of millions of pounds – and that’s taxpayers’ money. Tax money, collected from people who can ill afford to pay the inflated rates, is being used to fund mediocre entertainment shows in 2020. I can’t be the only one who finds that utterly obscene.

Strictly Come Dancing is one of many shows that can and should be produced by other networks.

In fact I’m not – and there’s a growing number of people who, like me, opt not to pay the television license. In my case the decision was a simple one: I don’t watch live television any more. I haven’t for a number of years, and I have no plans to start again. When Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, YouTube, and other services exist, there’s almost no point. The kinds of shows I like to watch are readily available to me via streaming platforms, and if I want to catch up on the news I can read the headlines any time I like online. Several newspapers offer paid subscriptions to their content, and honestly I’d rather pay that than pay the television license. The last BBC show that I was close to being a regular viewer of was Doctor Who, and as I’ve explained in the past, I gave up on that show as the quality declined.

BBC shows are often sold to other networks outside the UK. The money raised from selling the rights to some of the organisation’s most popular series, like Top Gear or Doctor Who, gives the BBC an additional source of funding – demonstrating clearly that some of its content is commercially viable, and providing another great argument for scrapping this unfair tax.

The issue of abolishing the television license seems to face three hurdles: the first is nostalgia for the “good old days” when the BBC was the only game in town, the second is fear of what will happen to its content, and the third is that currently the BBC doesn’t run any commercials, which is something people appreciate. While nostalgia and brand loyalty can be difficult to overcome, the second two points are easily solved. Firstly, the BBC’s content will still be made. As happened with The Great British Bake-Off, other channels and networks will buy up the best properties. They may even keep the same name, logo, format, and even presenters. Some minor shows may fall by the wayside, but the best ones will be snapped up. Secondly, one of the options for the BBC’s future will be a paid-subscription model, and in such a case it may not need to have ad breaks. Even if they choose not to go down that route, Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and other online streaming services don’t run ads, so there are great options for ad-free viewing. I think as more people try out one or more of these services and see how easy they are to use and how much content is available, that last hurdle in particular will melt away.

Some people have claimed that the BBC’s news output – and the BBC World Service in particular – is somehow vital and alone is worth the cost of the television license. The World Service is a separate entity, broadcasting on shortwave and often being received in parts of the world where international news is difficult to obtain. But again, as the internet and smartphones become readily available in the World Service’s main markets, like central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, this is getting harder to justify. Secondly, there’s no reason why the World Service couldn’t continue in some form, funded directly by the government through general taxation. As for the BBC’s main domestic news broadcasts, well let’s just say there’s a reason why television journalists are about as popular as stepping in dog shit. There are a number of other news broadcasters in the UK, as well as international broadcasters whose output can be received via cable or satellite. Nothing the BBC does, not even its news, is essential any more. And to burst the last bubble, the BBC’s news output is no less biased than Sky, ITV, or other major broadcasters. They haven’t been impartial for a long time.

The logo of the TV Licensing organisation.

The question of the BBC’s future crops up if we talk about abolishing the television license. I wouldn’t expect the organisation to simply be shut down, at least not immediately. It would likely try to continue in some form, either by using the aforementioned subscription model, or by implementing commercial breaks. It would be a change, but if the BBC could trim the fat and downsize, producing less content but becoming more specialised, there’s no reason it couldn’t stand on its own and be financially viable.

The BBC charter – which includes the television license – is renewed every ten years. The last renewal was in 2017 and will thus expire in 2027. There is ample time for the BBC to make extensive arrangements to find an alternate method of funding. There are seven full years for the necessary arrangements to be made, allowing the license fee to cease to exist in 2027 in a way that is fair to the organisation. It would be a minor upset to some people, sure, but the way entertainment has shifted online in the last two decades shows no signs of slowing down, so by 2027 I think it’s not unfair to assume that more and more content will be consumed that way. Thus the BBC will be even more outdated than it already is. It will require some bold action from the government to swing the axe, so to speak, but it will be worth it in the long run. Abolishing the license fee is actually a popular policy position – whenever the public have been polled on the issue in recent years, abolishing the television license altogether has been by far the most-preferred option.

This regressive tax, which hits the lowest-income households hardest, needs to go. It’s simply not fit for purpose any more, and in 2020 there’s no longer any reasonable justification for it. Our media landscape is so diverse now that there isn’t any need for the BBC in its current form. It’s high time to scrap the television license.

Watching live television in the UK without a license is illegal, and I do not condone failing to abide by the law. There can be legal consequences for non-payment if payment is determined to be required. This article is designed to be informative about the practice of television licensing, and to argue that the tax should be abolished altogether through lawful means; it is not advocating non-payment of the license fee where payment is necessary, nor should anything said above be interpreted in that manner. This article contains the the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.