Guest Notes: Our national broadcaster is our national bully

Alex Deane
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The BBC unveiled its long-awaited list of its best-paid stars this week (Source: Getty)

There was a lot of coverage this week about the gender pay gap among the BBC’s highest earners; rightly so. But deafening silence about their funding model. What the BBC pays the “talent” would be its own business, but for the fact that the bill is paid for via a tax enforced at pain of imprisonment.

Its defenders say that ‘there’s no right to watch TV’ and that one can choose not to have a television. A position that manages simultaneously to be absolutist, charmless, statist and misses the point all at once, I’ve always thought. The free speech of other broadcasters, and the freedom of their listeners to receive that speech, are infringed by the obligation to pay a fee to a third party in order to conduct that transaction. Many, particularly on lower incomes, would be delighted to receive TV signals for free (as in many other countries in the world) even without the BBC channels, and commercial broadcasters would like to provide them with it.

Some claim that the BBC’s products are “value for money” – if that’s so, then the market will show that. Make it voluntary; people will presumably be happy to pay.

There’s something contradictory about saying: ‘This is great value for money. Now pay, you have no choice!’ What they mean is, I want you to subsidise what I want to watch, because I think that it is good for us, whether you want to or not. This is what supposedly justifies the ridiculous ruthlessness with which the licence policing takes place; masses of very threatening letters sent to millions of people as a matter of course, automatically increasing in intensity, mixing up the role of the state broadcaster with policing activities and spying on citizens.

Laws that are widely broken and resented diminish the stature of the law per se in the public eye.

Moreover, non-payment of the TV licence accounts for one in 10 cases before the magistrates, and is the largest reason for the imprisonment of women.

This largely unspoken human cost of the BBC weighs on my mind much more heavily than Gary Lineker’s salary.


Forty eight years ago yesterday, man walked on the moon for the first time. The bravery, the exploring spirit and the commitment to discovery shown then mark out that day in humanity’s history. What timidity we’ve shown in this arena since. Rather than thousands taking to the stars in the decades that have followed, a mere dozen have walked on the moon, half of whom are no longer with us. We’ve turned our innovation inwards: a better watch, driverless cars, cordless headphones. That’s all nice. But small horizons stuff, isn’t it?

Brexit banter

While we are told that preliminary Brexit negotiations went well in Brussels this week, our negotiating team was mocked in the media for going paperless in the face of team Barnier’s small forest of notes. Plainly the most incorrigible Brexit critics – so perversely keen to talk down their own side that they leap even on this “point” – are no environmentalists. Nor are they wise to the oldest trick of Downing Street snappers – capturing revealing notes inadvertently on show in the arms of a naive aide or minister.

Conversations with Kay Burley

Turning the tables on the master of the art, I interviewed Kay Burley at our office last week for an audience of clients and friends. Quotes of note: “Journalists will be victimised and killed because of the way Donald Trump describes them. “The average person abusing you on Twitter is someone in his basement waiting for mum to call him up for tea.” “Politicians shouldn’t legislate to control social media trolling. Just ignore them.” And when asked “what's your unfulfilled ambition?” Her answer was “grandchildren”. No pressure, Burley’s son Alexander who was in the audience.

Read more: Do the BBC's pay figures reveal a sexism problem within the corporation?

EU "exit" bill

The EU “exit bill” has a fast-diminishing half-life. Ours is a great trading nation and major market economy; other states will want to do deals with us. The closer we get to finally leaving, the more the reality of such deals will grow and the more the importance of the carrot dangled before us in the shape of a deal with the EU will diminish. That matters, because, just as any negotiator must be unafraid to walk away from a deal that’s too bad, surely anyone’s favourite bill is… nil.

Read more: Citizens' rights, Ireland and the Brexit bill cause rifts in UK-EU talks

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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