Is it time for a campaign of social disobedience to refuse payment of the BBC licence fee?

These days the BBC are not even attempting to disguise their partisan centrist, liberal, metropolitan, establishment, political bias.

Many on the left, including me, have traditionally been strong supporters of the idea of a collectively owned ‘people’s broadcaster’ that could provide us with impartial political and economic information in a world where all other media is owned and controlled by the wealthy and the powerful.

The social contract that justifies the imposition of the BBC licence fee has always been based on the BBC’s democratic function expressed primarily through it’s legal duty to provide British citizens with impartial political  information in order for us as democratic citizens to make informed and rational political choices.

If the BBC is unwilling or unable to fulfil that democratic function, then we have to ask what can possibly justify the compulsory licence fee and whether it is time for the left to collectively refuse to partake in this sham and to en masse refuse to pay the licence fee?

HBO, Netflix and even that pariah of the left, Amazon, have demonstrated very effectively that we no longer need a state broadcaster to ensure we are supplied with high quality documentary, drama, entertainment and comedy content. 

Sky and others have also demonstrated that we do not need a state broadcaster to ensure we are supplied with high quality sports coverage. We don’t even ‘need’ a national institution like the BBC to provide local radio or cultural services like regional orchestras, as these could easily be provided at a local level, especially when subsidised from the public purse.

So what is it the BBC is meant to be doing that makes it so valuable that I can be sent to prison if I don’t buy a licence to watch it?

You can argue that because of the compulsory nature of the licence fee that the BBC ends up being ‘great value for money’ for the great majority of us. And there is some truth in that. After all this is basically the same argument for collectively funding the national infrastructure, the NHS, state education and the welfare state through direct taxation… i.e. that on aggregate we ALL get a better deal by funding and controlling these services collectively than we would if we had to buy them as individuals in a free market.

But these other services and institutions are not purveyors of ideas. They were of course born out of political ideas and are emblematic of socialist and liberal ideas of collective and mutual responsibility but they are themselves simply providers of practical services.

Television by contrast deals exclusively in ideas. The dissemination of ideas is it’s entire purpose. Even fairly banal ‘light entertainment’ TV shows such as The X Factor, Dragon’s Den, Jeremy Kyle, Benefit Street and Big Brother, are very potent expressions of hegemonic political values. Even slapstick comedy is built upon ideas because it works on the basis of some collective notion of who and what it is okay to laugh at. If you doubt the veracity of this proposition can I suggest you watch some 70’s sitcoms!

Ideas are the basic source material upon which all television is built! A producer or broadcaster can have access to all the money in the world but without ideas TV is impossible. 

And ‘broadcast’ television is perhaps the most powerful medium humans have ever invented for the expression and dissemination of ideas. Even more so than ‘narrowcast’, internet-based, content providers, because watching ‘broadcast’ television is actually a collective, social activity – rather than a private individual activity.

Television and newspapers are very expensive to produce. As a result control of the ‘ideas’ they build their programmes upon mainly resides with the wealthy who can fund production. Or less commonly in this century than the last by ‘state broadcasters’ who use the resources of the state to produce content. As a result the vast majority of content worldwide has been and always will be controlled by the wealthy and/or the powerful.

In a democracy this has huge political implications because if all of our political information comes from sources owned by the wealthy and the powerful then it is highly unlikely that these sources will effectively crticise the rich and the powerful. On the contrary it is highly likely that corporate media owned by the rich and the powerful will promote the idea that the rich and the powerful are the ‘great and the good’ and that their privilige, wealth and power is justified and necessary and that in fact we all benefit from the wealthy being wealthy, and indeed that there is no alternative to this state of affairs.

So if even a fraction of what I am saying is true, then the value of a collectively owned, politically impartial, public ‘service’ broadcaster that is NOT owned or controlled by the wealthy or the powerful and which disseminates political and economic information without bias, becomes obvious.

Indeed, this has always been the left argument for supporting the ‘idea’ of the BBC – i.e. the idea of a ‘people’s broadcaster’ whose primary democratic function was to present political ideas and democratic choices impartially without the undue, self-interested, influence of wealthy and powerful individuals, commercial corporations or governments.

It is arguable whether or not the BBC has ever historically actually fulfilled this idealistic democratic function, it openly opposed the National Strike in 1926 for example, but it is certainly true that between the mid 50’s and the mid 80’s the BBC ‘felt’ as if it was at least trying to be impartial and fulfil it’s Reithian remit to inform, educate and entertain us as democratic citizens rather than simpy as consumers of media.

Certainly between say 1955 and 1985 there was a range of political opinion expressed on the BBC that is inconceivable today, and not just in terms of news and comment but also in drama and comedy and eve children’s television. A striking example is that I have a copy of the 1974 Blue Peter Annual that includes a four page article on the Tolpuddle Martyrs and a very positive piece on trade union banners. Such a positive spin for trade unions and the history of the struggle for social justice in a BBC children’s programme is frankly unthinkable today,

The private, corporate, media owned by the rich and powerful is biased, partisan and profoundly dishonest but at least you know where you stand and can in theory choose different sources of information, comment and news. I can at least choose whether I buy the Morning Star, The Socialist Worker or The Daily Mail.

But I am legally obliged to buy a BBC licence if I want to watch any broadcast, terrestrial television on any television set in the UK. I was happy, nay proud, to do this when I thought that the BBC was at least theoretically committed to it’s impartial democratic function but if it is not, and it is demonstrably not at the moment, then the social contract is broken and I am no longer content to go along with this. I am not willing to fund a neoliberal state broadcaster that defends the interests og the ruling class against the interests of the public.

It can be argued that the BBC started to abandon its impartiality after the Falklands War when an outraged Thatcher launched an unprecedented attack on the political independence of the insitution because of its scepticism about the war. In the early 80’s the BBC was still able to produce drama series such as The Boy’s From The Blackstuff, which were highly critical of the new economic theories known then as ‘Thatcherism’, which we now more accurately call neoliberalism. But by the end of the 80’s such programmes were unthinkable and with the appointment of the dispicable John Birt (now Baron Birt… seriously, Baron Birt… perhaps more accurately Robber-Baron Birt.) in 1992 the dismantling and privatising of the BBC began in earnest.

In 2004 when Greg Dyke was forced to resign by the obnoxious hypocrite, Alistair Campbell, over the BBC’s critical but entirely accurate, coverage of the build up to the Iraq War, any pretence of the BBC’s independence from government was ended. From then on the aparatchik senior management at the BBC were in no doubt as to who was in charge and responded accordingly.

By the time Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 the BBC news and current affairs department had been populated bya posse of blatantly neoliberal journalists and producers who met Corbyn’s election as leader with undisguised, open mouthed, mirthful, incredulity. They continued in this openly contemptuous vein as they presumably thought Corbyn’ election was merely a blip in the ideological triumph of centrist, pro-capitalist but socially toerant liberalism, and that the PLP would depose him within 6-12 months. 

This didn’t happen of course and in fact centrist liberalism took another massive hit in June 2016 when the British public voted to leave the EU and then in November when right wing populist Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. It seemed that history hadn’t ended after all!

And so in light of these ‘attacks’ on centrist (neo)liberalism the news and current affairs of the BBC seem to have decided to openly take sides and promote a specific and narrow political position similar to The Guardian – i.e. middle class, pro-capitalist, but educated, professional, liberal and cultured. 

Now you may prefer to read The Guardian rather than the Daily Mail but no one can seriously suggest that The Guardian is impartial. On all the major issues of today it has taken clear poistions. It is pro-Remain, pro-capitalist, pro-war, anti-Russian, anti-Corbyn and anti-Trump. As is the BBC. The BBC has become a broadcast version of the Guardian. And The Guardian, like the BBC, is overwhelmingly written and managed by middle class, privately educated, Oxbridge graduates… i.e. by socially liberal members of the establishment who are never going to support anything that seriously challenges their wealth and privilige.

It is absolutely not acceptable that a broadcaster funded by a compulsory licence fee adopts such a specific, narrow and unreprsentative political position. Since WW2 centrist liberalism has always been a minority position in the UK.

I would personally would prefer to see a BBC that actually fulfilled it’s democratic remit. I recognise however that may no longer be possible, if indeed it was ever the case, and I am no longer prepared to support a publicly funded BBC.

Is it time for the British public to end the sham of BBC impartiality by refusing to pay the licence fee? Such a campaign of public civil disobedience would have consequences for campaigners and licence refuseniks would face fines and ultimately prison.

Such a campaign would also serve the interests of Rupert Murdoch et al who have been seeking the privatisation of the BBC for at least thirty years.

However, surely we on the left cannot simply ignore BBC bias anymore? The BBC has to be forced to fulfil it’s duty of impartiality or it has to be ended as a public broadcaster funded through the licence fee.  

About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders.
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3 Responses to Is it time for a campaign of social disobedience to refuse payment of the BBC licence fee?

  1. Steve says:

    Chris, you may or not, be aware that in the US we have a collection of Public Broadcast Stations. AKA, PBS. They receive a very small percentage of cash from the Government. Most from individual donations via, as one daughter’s UK Father-in-Law calls them, Begathons. The local (Silicon Valley / SF Bay area) station will show unique / special programming during, said, begathons. Promising to bring viewers more shows as seen during the cash drives. Only, returning to the same programming as before. Too often, going on for years. No joke. Both, Keeping UP Appearances & As Time Goes By, have been running non-stop for a decade +. Many individuals send in their cash donations. While many of the wealthy donate via large (huge) lumps of dosh, or their Foundations. Their names are evident in the closing credits of programming, if one pays attention. My question, “Once the wealthy, whom also donate (heavily) to political campaigns, enter any Public Television realm…… can political leanings be kept out?” We gave up on the local station due to, all too often, gimme a dollar sessions & the news seeming to have certain leanings. Along with that, their own produced shows are done with a particilar slant, rearding the subjects.

    • Hi Steve. Yes I’m aware of PBS. Lovejoy was originally shown on PBS before being picked up by Showtime.

      And yes “He who pays the piper calls the tune” is as true today as it has ever been. Indeed, the licence fee was meant to protect the BBC from government and the wealthy and thus theoretically it would would be able to be genuinely impartial.

      However since 1979 the government have used the appointment of BBC Governors and the fact that the government have to approve the level of the licence fee, to submit the BBC to direct government pressure. This was not inevitable and in the post war years governments of all persuasions had respected the BBC’s independence. But not anymore.

      • Steve says:

        As you’ve done so much more that Lovejoy, I didn’t want to mention it. I saw one episode on A&E. Not long after, the entire series aired on our ex-local PBS station. That particular station went right down the middle of the road, as far as politics / slants went. They presented information, without taking a side. Offered countless hours of good entertaining shows (i.e: Lovejoy, East Enders, Mind Your Language). They produced quality educational shows. When the current station took over, all was lost. I’m sure you’ve heard of our ‘border crisis’. Much programming has been done showing the plight of ‘imigrants’. The Poli-Sci major in our house wants to know why nothing is done regarding Constitutional Laws on Immigration, or legalities of immigration. She sees no opposing view to the current ones shown. I’ve been telling her it’s basic business…..find your target market & run with it.

        A serious question for you. I have, at times, gone to the BBC website to read about the …..(add descriptive here)………events about our politics. Hoping to find a bit more centred information. Am I wrong to think that?

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