The reputation of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), the UK’s state broadcaster, for liberal bias is such that U.S. conservatives are as familiar with its anti-Republican, anti-Israel, pro-big government, multicultralist agenda, and its tendency to subject Christianity to skepticism and ridicule while giving Islam the benefit of the doubt, as they are with Monty Python, The Benny Hill Show and its other successful transatlantic exports.
And while American conservatives rightly complain about the liberal bias in their own country’s media, at least they’re not forced to pay for it (aside from their share of the relatively meagre federal subsidy for PBS and NPR). Their British counterparts are not so fortunate.
The BBC is funded by the TV licence fee, a £145.50 ($240) compulsory tax on households that own a television – so even if you’ve never watched a BBC program in your life, if you have a TV set you have to pay. And if you don’t like the relentless stream of pro-immigration, pro-European Union propaganda on its news programs, or the non-stop jokes at the expense of (Republican) U.S. politicians on its comedy shows, or the thrillers in which the bad guys turn out to be Mossad agents or anti-abortion fanatics, you have to pay (if you think I’m exaggerating about the bias in entertainment shows, an upcoming Doctor Who episode will feature an “intergalactic banker” as a villain).
Non-payment of the licence fee is currently a criminal offence. Offenders can be hauled into court, and ultimately jailed. Such compulsion sits uneasily with the BBC’s image, carefully cultivated by its supporters in the wider liberal establishment, as the country’s “favorite broadcaster” and a “much loved” national institution (similarly emotive language is used to attack critics of the beleaguered National Health Service).
As a more practical matter, it’s also putting a strain on Britain’s courts; around one in ten criminal cases are prosecutions for licence fee evasion. In 2012, 190,000 people were prosecuted for non-payment, and 165,000 were convicted and given a criminal record – two-thirds of them women, and many of them low-income single parents and the elderly (you don’t qualify for a free licence until you’re 75). Fifty-one were jailed.
The current licence fee agreement is up for renewal in 2017, and ahead of negotiations the government has floated a proposal, which has attracted cross-party support, to decriminalise licence fee evasion; non-payment would instead be treated as civil offence, and offenders would no longer face the threat of imprisonment.
The BBC has responded by warning that if the proposals are implemented non-payment will increase, and the cost of the licence fee for those who do pay will rise. Furthermore, one of its directors (a former Labour government minister, in case you were still in any doubt about the left-wing bias) has warned that the BBC would be forced to axe some channels – and first for the chop would be those dedicated to children’s programming.
Think of the children! If the BBC’s threat has a familiar ring to it, it’s because liberals employed very similar scare tactics during the 2012 presidential election campaign, claiming that Republicans wanted to kill off Big Bird and Sesame Street after Mitt Romney said he’d end the federal subsidy for PBS.
But let that sink in for a moment: Britain’s state broadcaster is threatening to take children’s shows off the air if members of the public are no longer jailed for refusing to fund it. And this from an organization that, back in the days when it actually did command the respect and affection of a majority of the British public, was nicknamed “Auntie” in recognition of the benevolent role it was felt to play in the life of the nation – these days it’s more of a wicked stepmother.
Bias aside, in recent years the BBC has been rocked by a succession of scandals, from the Jimmy Savile child abuse affair to disclosures of massive pay-offs for senior managers, and the licence fee is becoming increasingly unpopular with the British public, with polls showing that a clear majority want it scrapped, or the cost reduced. And while abolishing the tax altogether remains a minority view among politicians, there’s a growing consensus that the licence-fee-based funding model, which gives the BBC a huge advantage over its commercial rivals (its news operation employs 8,000 journalists – more than all the UK’s newspapers put together), is becoming unsustainable in an age of multi-channel, multi-platform broadcasting.
An increasingly nervous BBC has come up with its own, Obamacare-esqe idea for an “enforced membership scheme,” whereby viewers would still be compelled to pay, but would somehow “own” the corporation. Others, including conservatives sick of being forced to subsidize output they view as often being tantamount to enemy propaganda, would like to see the corporation forced to compete in the open market through voluntary subscription. The latter option is the more likely – and if it happens we’ll finally find out just how “loved” the modern BBC really is.