Defend Truth


Scrapping licence fees may give society the content it wants, but not what it needs


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

Freezing the TV licence fees due to the BBC is not a gesture many South Africans would have sympathy for. This is the outcome of a recent ruling and effort that could culminate in the eventual scrapping of the licence fee, come 2028.

The political knives are out for the media behemoth that has been the voice of Britain for almost 100 years. The price freeze will leave a funding shortage of £285-million by 2027 that will require programming and staffing cuts, for a £4-billion organisation that is described as “lean” by its CEO. Shame.

Although sympathy shouldn’t be our first reaction, two-thirds of Britons are in favour of scrapping the £156 (R3,120) annual fee that would irrevocably change the institution and its potential impact on society.

The complaints against the fee range from a decline in consumption of BBC content to an antiquated model and the general frustration of being forced into a transaction.

Although South Africans are all too familiar with the grudge purchase of an enforced licence fee for a service that is waning in popularity, the unintended consequences for Britain could be huge.

A new study published in The International Journal of Press/Politics looked into the impact of public media on the democratic health of 33 countries. Its findings were clear: high levels of secure funding for public media systems and strong structural protections for the political and economic independence of those systems are consistently and positively correlated with healthy democracies.

Causality is, however, hard to establish – does democracy thrive when public media is well funded and independent, or vice versa? The answer is more likely a two-way street or feedback-loop scenario, where one feeds off the other.

European countries and northern European democracies, especially, were found to have higher contributions to public media on a per capita basis. Germany spends $142.42 per person on its public broadcasters, Finland $101.29 and Denmark $93.16. The US, as the largest economy in the world, spends a paltry $3.16 per person, or one-sixth of Botswana’s $18.38 per person. The study goes on to conclude that audience reach and size isn’t correlated with democratic health but rather that its mere existence (supported by independent operations) contributes to better functioning societies.

If the licence fee were scrapped completely, and the BBC was forced to look at alternative revenue models like a Netflix or HBO subscription, what would the output of those efforts look like and how much of it could still be classified as a “public service”?

Although the pulling power of binge-worthy series and never-ending libraries of feature films is uncontested, what would happen to news coverage, the BBC World Service, Olympic Games and the many free-to-air radio stations and podcasts? And what about treasures like David Attenborough and the important work on nature and climate change? Moreover, what would happen to democracy itself if a huge portion of the British news diet was slashed, leaving a void for, well, who knows what?

There are few alternatives to the subscriptions as the revenue model, as many public broadcasters around the world employ. Some are suggesting a broadband tax, government grant funding or some rather fiscally sourced funding that could keep the editorial vision of the BBC on the same path. The challenge will come if it is forced to go down the advertising or subscriptions path because media that is purely market-force driven takes very different decisions to those that have a public service mandate and funding model.

Although the BBC will need to slim down operations and update its offering, it remains the success story of public-funded media, despite its current challenges.

Every organisation, let alone media companies, is required to innovate and evolve. No one is exempt from the demands of relevance and staying in tune with the needs of its audience. But flipping the switch completely and moving from a licence fee to subscriptions, for example, runs the risk of leaping from journalism that society needs to content people want. Needs vs wants. Journalism vs content. DM168


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  • Stephen T says:

    Read between the lines here – a state broadcaster is (and always has been) one of the principal propaganda tools a state uses to influence public opinion, and paid for by the very public it seeks to control. A most convenient arrangement for an excessively interventionist state to go about its nefarious business. Technology is now rendering this tool obsolete and the state is floundering to maintain some kind of control over the flow of information.

    On the other hand, a government that is genuinely more concerned with civil liberties and a free market would not be overly concerned with the loss of a state broadcaster. In a very real sense, technology is liberating information by forcing an evolution within that sphere, and thus the evolutionary principle of adapt or die applies here in a straightforward manner.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Yes, well put. The notion that a licence funded state media organisation necessarily provides “journalism that society needs” is frankly illusory.

  • Paul Fanner says:

    I like articles that first appear in print . Column inches limit unnecessary length. By contrast, electronic media articles are waaay too long. I end up reading the first and last lines of each paragraph, then deciding if the rest may be relevant

  • John Weinkove says:

    Somebody has to pay to keep the BBC going. A license is a non progressive tax. The treasury is funded by the higher earners paying more and those who earn little paying nothing.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Having suffered state propaganda of apartheid and now of state capture (New age/ independent/ SABC), I’m surprised by the naivety of this appeal. Frankly, I’m sceptical of all I read in SA which is why I subscribe to DM as the one exception to the status quo. I recently tested a sub to News24 – it was awful (trite/ badly edited/ inaccurate/ poorly researched). DM spoils us for virtually all other platforms. I haven’t watched SABC/ENCA/ DSTV in years and I know many like me; though I am one of the few that still pays the annual licence fee. SAFM in the car is enough propaganda and that is usually Stephen or late-night stuff. Lest you miss it Styli – that’s a well-deserved compliment.

  • Peter Doble says:

    I find this a strange stance from our esteemed DM ceo. If state broadcasting is the journalistic nirvana why the need for independent media?
    Auntie Beeb has been in terminal decline for at least 40 years – since it was captured by the Oxbridge literatti. It has lost viewing rights to every key event yet still demands an annual Poll tax to churn out woke ideas and cancel culture trivia.
    The SABC is the vassal of the one party state churning out endless chat shows and turning the nation’s collective brain cell comatose with pathetically dull coverage of meaningless announcements, commissions and politically motivated events to tame the collective masses.

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