TV Licences

The posts below are selected and edited from a Metafilter thread started on 17 July 2003 by feelinglistless, about broadcaster Jonathan Miller's failed challenge to the legality of television licencing in the UK. TV licences may be legal, but I argued in the ensuing thread they're hardly equitable. Comments by people other than myself are highlighted in blue. Also included are some final thoughts written a couple of days later.


The licence fee is a pre-war relic that persists only because of government inertia. It's ridiculous that here in the UK support for the licence fee is seen as a left-wing position and opposition to it is seen as right-wing: as Miller points out, it's a flat-rate tax that's far more of an imposition on the poor than the rich. Just because critics focus on the licence fee as a way of attacking the BBC itself doesn't mean that defenders of the BBC should have to defend the licence fee. The two should not be logically linked.

The BBC should be funded—at whatever level the public via its elected representatives determines—through general taxation, just like any other public service. (And no, not by advertising.) Critics might still complain about paying for a service they don't use, but any one of us can point to public services we don't use, and at least they won't be able to point to a single fee specifically earmarked to support the BBC. And there'll be no more waste of government time and money on policing the fee. I mean, honestly: detector vans? Wasting court time on this nonsense?


In Australia (where I'm from) the ABC does okay being funded out of general taxation. Yes, there is a risk of government interference/blackmail, but that risk is just as present in the UK—it just happens in different ways. And over there, whenever the government does hack away at the budget there's an almighty outcry, and it becomes an election issue.

Compare that with the UK situation: by having the BBC funded separately from general taxation, it isn't accountable to the public. Not accountable enough, anyway. Would we accept that of any other major public institution? If the BBC is so great—which in a great many respects it is—it should feel able to make its case to the public for a budget of X million a year, just like every other essential public service has to. The ABC did that brilliantly with the '8 cents a day' campaign in the late '80s (although it's lost its way a bit in recent years).

And those who figure it's no big deal to fork over the equivalent of two weeks' worth of your total income when you're living a hand-to-mouth existence might want to readjust their concept of 'poor'.


General taxation as a means to fund the BBC seems a little naive. General taxation is at the hands of politicians. They don't fund schools properly, what makes you think they'd give a flying fig about the BBC? It would be on its knees in no time at all, and we'd have telethons for funding. No thanks.

Tying the BBC's financial fate to that of other public services would be a huge boost to the public sector as a whole. It would gain a powerful ally with an invested interest in resisting the sort of across-the-board cuts to spending beloved of economic rationalists. As it is, with the current quasi-user-pays system, the BBC is insulated from that sort of thing, as you point out. That isn't necessarily a good thing. When the Australian ABC started suffering the same budget cuts as the rest of the country, it raised public awareness of the impact of those cuts—you could see the evidence in the TV schedule. And it became an election issue. People had to make choices about where they wanted their money spent. That's not naive, that's democracy at work.

Why do people imagine America is the only alternative model? What about Australia? Canada? If you have a political culture that values public services, it will value its public broadcasters.

And as for no-one else coming close, look at tonight on BBC1: Open All Hours, a repeat of an ancient Ronnie Barker sitcom... EastEnders, standard soap... Auf Weidersehen, Pet, another repeat... the usual mix of the good, the bad and the ancient. I think you'll find that a lot of other national broadcasters come close to that.


For what it's worth, I know that the licence fee will remain forever and ever, because most people in Britain do feel that it's an "anomaly that works"; all I was trying to do was indicate just how much of an anomaly it is, whichever way you slice it. It's a flat-tax user-pays system of funding, and yet the right wing opposes it and the left wing supports it, which goes against all usual political logic.

That said: I personally would be a lot happier with it if at least it was a two-tier system and not a flat rate; that is, if households in the bottom, say, 20 percent by income only had to pay twenty quid a year instead of £116, or something like that. Penalising someone simply because they possess a TV and can't come up with the readies to pay a £116 bill is iniquitous.

Of course, then it would have to be collected by a body with reliable access to household income data, like, say, Inland Revenue. And they might as well collect it when they're collecting other monies, like, say, income tax. So then it might as well be part of income tax. But whatever; the tax system has other anomalies, like NI contributions, so one more wouldn't hurt.

They should at least ditch the detector van crap, though. If it's a valuable national institution, be honest about it and tax everybody. Almost everyone owns a TV anyway.


If you want to stay in & watch TV on a Friday night in the middle of July, don't expect the brightest lights of Prime Time to come out & shine. On ITV there are 2 soaps & a repeat of A Touch of Frost. Viva le difference.

I don't own a television.

They should at least stop traffic wardens inspecting road tax, though. If it's a valuable national transport system, be honest about it and tax everybody. Almost everyone owns a car anyway.

Fair enough. And I don't own a car.

I still benefit from the road network, though, so I should pay for it through a fair system of progressive income taxation, which would automatically take into account how much I benefit from it (in monetary terms, which is what we're talking about here: licences and taxes), and would protect those on low incomes.

Similarly, even though I don't own a TV at the moment, I benefit from the existence of the BBC in all sorts of ways—BBC radio, BBC online, BBC DVDs to watch on my laptop, and all the thousands and thousands of hours of BBC programmes I've seen in my life, including whenever I've stayed in a hotel or B&B in Britain these past couple of years. I would have no problem with supporting that as a UK resident by contributing to its budget through general taxation.

The car analogy breaks down in one respect, though: MOT inspections relating to road tax play an important role in keeping unroadworthy cars off the road, where they can be a menace to other drivers and the environment. Whereas owning a crappy old TV that barely works has no impact on other viewers or the airwaves.

Still, it would be quite possible to require that cars be inspected for roadworthiness, and charge a fee to cover costs, without making that fee carry the burden of maintaining the roads themselves. (I'd be surprised if it actually does, in fact—I expect most road costs are met from general revenue; I'm just addressing the implications of your point.)


Good god, authoritarian governments love people like you who think they should pay more tax for some unknown reason.

Except we aren't actually discussing an authoritarian government, we're discussing a representative democracy which is kept in check by the people (even people like me) via the ballot box and in various other ways. But thanks for the implication that I'm some kind of gullible toady to authoritarians. ...

I don't yearn to "pay more tax for some unknown reason". My arguments here are about replacing a specific, flat-rate tax (in all but name)— the TV licence—with a more equitable means of raising the same amount of money (or a different amount, if the people through their elected representatives so decide).

A tax system requires ways of minimising tax avoidance, which in the case of TV licences means TV detector vans and prosecutions; but given that only a tiny minority of households don't have a TV (about 2%), and assuming ways of reducing the impact on poorer households, it would be much simpler just to assume total TV coverage and make everyone pay for it—and if you're doing that, you might as well do it through general taxation. So yes, in this specific instance I would be willing to pay slightly more in tax just to remove this burden on the legal system, which would in turn save taxpayers' money.


Drawing those off-the-cuff suggestions together with some actual calculations:

In 2001 there were 21,660,475 households in England and Wales, about 88.5% of the UK population, which extrapolates to roughly 24.5 million households in the UK as a whole. If 98% of those have a TV, and assuming they all actually pay their licence fee, the total revenue is about £2.78 billion a year.

To raise the same amount through a scheme that kept the fee down to twenty pounds for the bottom twenty percent of households, you would have to charge the remaining households £137 p.a. instead of £116 p.a. If you did it through a tax return people would hardly notice the difference; if you raised the funds through actual income taxes the net increase for most people would be even less. And you wouldn't have people on sixty five quid a week ending up in court because they can't come up with the licence fee for a 14-inch telly.


But it didn't stop there... the thread may have been over, but after further off-line discussions on the subject I wrote this.

Imagine you're a Labour Prime Minister in a hypothetical country, and your government has decided to stop funding its public television broadcaster out of general taxation and switch to a user-pays model. Since it's impossible to determine exactly who watches their broadcasts at any point, it's easiest to assume that everyone does at some point, and so everyone with a television set should pay. Because 98% of all households have a TV, your user-pays model is effectively an everyone-pays model, which is a bit strange; user-pays systems are usually only introduced for services used by a minority. Nevertheless, because you're scrupulously allowing people the option of not having to pay if they don't have a TV, there will have to be safeguards against the 10-15% who falsely claim not to have a TV, half of whom you'll have trouble catching.

A lot of people will want to avoid paying, because you've decided that this user-pays system will be a flat-rate tax: every household—whether it's a mansion housing a family of twelve, or a single pensioner's bedsit—will incur the same fee, an amount that represents about two weeks' worth of the dole. Because we're talking about television here, many will find a way to pay, even if it's a major dent on their finances; but those who don't or can't you can always fine and, if necessary, drag through the courts until they do.

It all works reasonably well, and your broadcaster's revenue is guaranteed to be met by the TV fee. Well, at least until you and your colleagues change your minds, since the government controls the system, and sets the level of the fee. But any tardiness in increasing the fee to match inflation will be counterbalanced by the gradual increase in number of households across the country through immigration and a trend towards fewer people per household.

Over time, in fact, the broadcaster might find its revenue increasing so significantly it has more than it needs to run two channels. Broadcasting costs don't increase linearly as audience increases, after all; it's not like hospitals, where extra people need extra beds. You can't "use up" the airwaves. Rather than lobbying for a decrease in the licence fee, though (why would they?), they put the money to good effect by using it to fund two new digital TV channels, giving everyone more for their money.

Everyone who owns a digital TV, that is, and can receive it. Who tend not to be the poor, particularly in rural areas. They still have to pay the full TV fee, though, because... well, because. It just wouldn't be a flat-rate user-pays system of taxation otherwise, would it?

So congratulations, Mr Hypothetical Labour PM; you've gone from a system where everyone's capacity to pay for this public service was automatically taken into account by a system of progressive income taxation, to one which has negligible impact on the rich and a far greater impact on the poor. And if the poor try to avoid the fee, you can always send around some officials in privacy-invading detector vans to search the place. It's a social democrat's dream.

A bad dream, that is.

And yet, back in the real world, our real Labour PM isn't thinking of introducing this regressive tax—he's the inheritor of a proud tradition of regressive "TV Licensing" taxation, because Britons don't believe that the BBC could survive without it.

Here's how it would survive: by everyone electing governments that promise to maintain its budget at a reasonable level using money raised through a system of progressive income taxation which protects the poor, and holding them to that promise at the ballot box.

But there I go, being all foolishly social democratic.

21 July 2003


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