Former Tory MP: TV Tax Won’t Survive, BBC Like ‘Polar Bear on a Receding Piece of Ice’

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 29: General View of BBC Broadcasting House on January 29, 2020 in London, England. The BBC announced today that it is to cut 450 jobs by 2022 in an effort to save GBP 80 Million. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Peter Summers/Getty Images

Former Conservative MP Michael Portillo has said that the BBC will not survive in its current TV tax-funded model, comparing it to a “polar bear on a receding piece of ice”.

Mr Portillo, who makes frequent media appearances including on the BBC, bluntly told the audience of Question Time on Thursday night: “I do not believe that the licence fee can survive.”

He said that based on his experience with young filmmakers who produce the programs he appears in, the younger generation does not pay the TV licence or watch the BBC that it funds because they consume their media via streaming services. This anecdotal evidence is backed up by an Ofcom report released last year revealing that fewer than half of 16- to 24-year-olds consume BBC media even a minimum of once a week.

“The BBC is losing its audience,” the Thatcherite and Brexiteer said. “And why? Because these people have any other number of opportunities to watch television and they consume it as they wish and when they wish.”

Mr Portillo threw into question whether the BBC provided any unique content as a “public service” at all, citing an example of how a commercial channel like Sky Arts proving more material on the arts than currently by the BBC.  “I don’t think there’s much evidence on the BBC, now, that they’re doing things other people could not possibly do,” he said.

The conservative is not the only commentator to remark that the BBC’s attempt at promoting the arts is well below expectation for a public service broadcaster. Douglas Murray remarked in The Spectator on Friday that the direction the broadcaster has taken has become more low-brow, leaving those interested in high arts as cultural orphans, with the BBC abandoning quality so-called “elitist” art.

Mr Murray wrote that a public-funded broadcaster should be “an unashamed advocate of high culture”, but “Survey what the BBC now presents as great British art and you are most likely to be presented with ‘grime’ music. This is a genre whose leading talent, Slowthai, was last week awarded ‘Hero of the year’ at the NME awards. Mr Slowthai celebrated his recognition by attempting to harass the female host before jumping into the pit to start a fight with some fans. The music is less lovely than its ambassadors.”

“[There is] not a single weekly programme on the main channels — not one — to show that the corporation takes high culture seriously. Not a teat for intelligent or discerning people to suckle on,” the commentator added.

Mr Portillo echoed remarks by the culture secretary Nicky Morgan than the BBC could go the way of Blockbuster if it does not reform, saying: “Twenty years ago, Netflix was a corner shop renting videotapes. Today, it is spending $10 billion a year on content. Twenty years ago, the BBC was a global name. Today, the BBC is wedded to the licence fee. It is like a polar bear on a receding piece of ice.”

Media reporting leaks have claimed that the Conservative government is looking into scrapping the TV licence and forcing the BBC to make its own money, leading to accusations that the institutionalised broadcaster is under attack, with some Tory MPs claiming it was “cultural vandalism”. Downing Street appeared to backtrack from the reported claims, with Boris Johnson said to be more in favour of “reform” than “revolution”.

The government is, however, in the midst of a consultation to decriminalise non-payment of the £154.50 a year licence fee. Under the terms of the Communications Act 2003, anyone who watches live television or watches BBC iplayer must pay the TV tax which sustains the broadcaster, even if you do not consume any BBC content at all. Non-payment could result in an up to £1,000 fine, a court appearance, and even imprisonment. In 2018, 121,000 people were convicted of illegally watching TV and five people were sent to prison in England and Wales as a result.

Figures from the Barb rating agency reported by The Times on Friday revealed that more than half of British households have a streaming subscription service, with 50.5 per cent of homes having at least one service, with the most popular being Netflix, Sky’s Now TV, and Amazon Prime Video. While traditional viewing remains the most popular, accounting for 69 per cent of total TV time, a report from earlier in the week revealed that in one year, nearly 200,000 people cancelled their TV licence.

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