The licensing man cometh: addendum

‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna read your hot takes anymore!’ Credit: Network (Sidney Lumet, MGM/UA).

My last piece on TV Licensing caught fire and is now the most read thing on my website. A few things came up in the responses on social media and elsewhere that I wanted to mention1.

I took no position on the BBC and its funding other than to say that I’m in favour of public service broadcasting.

This was partly a question of supply and demand: the supply of opinions on the BBC greatly exceeds demand. I also know some things about TV Licensing that aren’t widely recognised, but I don’t have anything original or of interest to say about the BBC and its funding. In fact, as someone who didn’t have a TV from 2002 to 2017 and rarely watches it now, my opinion on the BBC’s output may be unusually worthless2.

Further, I’m probably what some people call a ‘high decoupler’, in that here I was interested in how things work independently of e.g. political considerations. What I was writing was to the best of my knowledge true; whether it favoured this or that cause didn’t much interest me.

A sizable minority of readers didn’t see it that way. Some of the most fervent people on either side of the Brexit question who now hate the BBC assumed I was attacking it and were in favour. Some supporters of the BBC thought I was being unhelpful, at best.

Someone said I should have just paid the licence fee (a ‘pittance’) even though I didn’t have a TV (!) and a few people said I should just have cooperated with TV Licensing (without addressing why I said I didn’t). Others congratulated me for giving it to the BBC hot, because it’s an agent of the devil (opinions differed as to which devil according to political taste).

Well, having said I didn’t have anything of interest to say about BBC funding, something I read later made me think.

The pro-BBC/public service broadcasting law and policy commentator, David Allen Green (who for full disclosure shared my TV Licensing piece on Twitter), tweeted that:

Decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee will be used to kill off the BBC *only* if BBC defenders are daft enough to choose that as the battleground

Far better to concede the point, and defend the principle of special funding for the BBC and public service broadcasting3

This is an interesting and to me probably correct argument.

The alternative is some variation of ‘the ends justify the means’, this good thing is worth this bad thing being done, more or less honestly argued.

If it’s dishonestly argued you will try to ignore or suppress information about how the TV licence works and instead think about nice BBC things. The problem with this is that you’re being false and many people will recognise it; your position is built on quicksand. If this sounds damning, it’s a position I can understand; most of us do it sometimes to avoid conflicts and hard decisions.

If I don’t feel the attraction of this for the BBC, perhaps it’s because although I’ve lived in the UK since I was 7 and have been a British subject since I was 18, I still don’t feel some things in my bones, like enjoying the drinking of tea or thinking of the BBC as Auntie.

If it’s honestly argued, then to be effective there must be overwhelming public support for the BBC. It seems to me that while this was once the case it probably no longer is. I also dislike the-ends-justify-the-means arguments.

Hence, per David Allen Green, if you want to defend the principle of public service broadcasting and by extension the BBC, there is more favourable ground to fight on and the truth about how the TV licence is enforced shouldn’t be shunned. Further, if you address this, you take a weapon from your opponents’ hands. There is no necessary connection between the licence in its current form and public service broadcasting, and to criticise one is not to attack the other, unless you make it so.

Paul Fishman (Cumbria, February 2020)


1. To be fair, sometimes there seems to be an inversely proportional relationship between how likely someone is to comment and how much they’ve read of a piece.
2. Having said that, viewing hours may not be everything; per Aldous Huxley, ‘Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.’ I’ve also written about TV occasionally, e.g. for Empire magazine (Twin Peaks) here.
3. I haven’t linked to the tweet as DAG sometimes protects his tweets to take a break from Twitter and using a screenshot also seemed bad form in that context.

One thought on “The licensing man cometh: addendum

  1. Both of the licensing man cometh articles are superb. They’re informative, fully documented, well illustrated and yet manage to flash your sly humour.

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