Life without the licence

It’s amazing what can happen when you turn your back for a short time. Just back from watching lots of Spanish TV news (I love the way they credit the people involved in putting together each major report) and I return to discover the television licence fee seems to be on its last legs and local newspaper editors are suggesting that radio stations who ‘lift’ their stories should have to pay.

Let’s deal with the second issue first. Any journalist that simply takes a story from another news organisation is a bad journalist. Rather than editors thinking of ‘sharing’ their stories as a source of income they should be condemning the practice out of hand. As teachers of future broadcast journalists at Birmingham City University we require our students to develop their own newsgathering skills, finding stories that haven’t been covered elsewhere. Newsroom exercises and assessments all emphasise the need for ‘original stories’. At a very minimum they have to have a completely new angle on any story that may have appeared in print somewhere. I like to think I had the same attitude when I was a news editor. If a reporter told me the local paper had a good story my response would be, ‘Great – now find a better one.’

There are clear problems here. Local newspapers are facing falling sales and competition from local radio – especially ‘licence fee feather-bedded’ BBC stations – so finding their stories on radio output and station websites must seem particularly unfair. On the other side, local radio stations have smaller numbers of journalists out on the patch so the temptation to use a paper story with minimal reworking is a real one. I repeat, though, that a system of payment is not the way forward and that it would just be condoning poor journalism.

Given the current state of the BBC’s finances (and so we say goodbye then BBC 3) it is doubtful that they could afford to pay up in the way the president of the Newspaper Society suggested to MPs in any case. That brings us to the issue of the licence fee and whether it will survive. The idea of ‘decriminalising’ licence dodging seemed like a substantial straw in the wind indicating that the last rites are being prepared for the annual ‘tax’. It would certainly mean a drop in the Corporation’s income. Then The Sunday Times led on the existence of a BBC report setting out plans for a subscription to replace the fee. You can see the argument – everyone who has receiving equipment pays for a licence whether or not they watch the BBC and whether or not they are already paying Sky, BT or whoever for their TV services. It makes sense then for the BBC to plan for life without the guaranteed income. Meanwhile, it seems the Director General, is also looking at ways of raising income by charging for items downloaded from the BBC store. It all seems very sensible. Supporters of the BBC – and they are legion – will, of course, point to its incredible value for money and tell you they are more than content to pay the licence fee and would indeed happily pay more. They don’t realise, apparently, that their willingness to stump up is a useful argument in favour of a subscription payment.

Clearly the BBC is special and deserves to be treated accordingly. Any action that might damage it is to be deplored but the Corporation is right to be thinking about life after the licence fee. Its services can now be accessed in so many ways that there must be methods of generating new income sources. At the same time, however, politicians need to be wary of ditching the licence without ensuring that the BBC’s core services can be protected.