I particularly wanted to speak in this debate because I am a fan of the BBC and I value it as a national institution. However, I fear that it is being held back by its outdated funding mechanism. For the BBC’s own good, I want to outline why new avenues of funding need to be explored.
I fear that, by seeking to maintain its outdated funding mechanism, the BBC is handing its critics a big stick with which to beat it increasingly hard, especially following the most recent decision on free TV licences for the over-75s. A television licence designed for the tiny market for TV broadcasting in the 1920s is utterly at odds with the staggering array of live, online and recorded broadcasting market options now available, as well as with the ever-growing and emerging technologies in the sector as we enter the 2020s. The television licence is nearly an antique. It is a punitive tax that belongs in the past if the BBC is to survive and thrive as a public service and as a worldwide entertainment broadcaster into the future.
The BBC has an enviable international reputation for excellence, and one that we must celebrate in this House and not begrudge. In an opinion poll last year, the BBC was rated the most trusted news brand in America, with a staggering 90%, beating Fox, CBS, CNN, Bloomberg and others. I was not surprised to see, in line with that finding from overseas, that while many hundreds of my constituents signed the petition to abolish the TV licence, barely 100 signed the petition for an inquiry into alleged bias—a point that Helen Jones, who introduced the debate, touched on. To have been trained by or gained experienced in the BBC is a world-class addition to any broadcaster or producer’s CV, as I am sure my hon. Friend John Howell knows only too well.
All that is good about the BBC needs to be preserved and refreshed. We must support the BBC as an institution for the important value—in the widest sense of the word —that it adds to our national life and our international soft power, cultural standing and esteem. In that vein, as a friend of the BBC, I wish it would embrace the possibility of securing alternative funding to the anachronistic and criminalising television licence regime.
In the days when the BBC was the only broadcaster available in the UK, the licence would have seemed an obvious choice of funding, but the world has changed. We can receive a great number of television channels, not only from the UK but from overseas. Now, many people can record, pause and rewind live TV as part of their subscription, and a significant proportion subscribe to a number of pay-TV services in the UK. The figure was 15.1 million in the first quarter of 2018, while online subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon and Now TV combined totalled 15.4 million.
That state of affairs, as the Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed out, acts as a perverse incentive for television makers not to make televisions multifunctional. We do not need a television licence to own a phone that could be used to watch television programmes, but we do need a television licence to own a television that can be used as a phone. As we enter the 2020s, mobile multifunctional devices are ever more ubiquitous, and we cannot uninvent them, any more than we could uninvent the transistor radios that made the old radio licence an unsustainable nonsense, finally leading to the abolition of the radio-only licence in 1971. We need to look at all possible means of financing the BBC that do not involve any kind of archaic household licence to own an everyday consumer good.