Comment Blog 12 June, 2019

Why Auntie is Right

“As someone who used to work for the BBC I am ashamed of them for this decision”, tweeted Tory leadership candidate Esther McVey in response to the BBC’s decision to scrap free TV licences for over 75s. The broadcaster, McVey went on, has “forgotten the public they are supposed to serve”, which presumably is why she has promised to reinstall the benefit if she becomes Prime Minister.

With the exception of those certified as blind (who get a 50% discount on the fee), old age is the only qualifying criteria for free access to the BBC’s television output. It is an oddly discriminatory position. McVey’s comments imply that elderly people are a special category of “the public” for which the BBC was constituted to serve. This, of course, is nonsense. The BBC’s mission is to serve “all audiences”.

Is this outrage, then, because pensioners are least likely to be able to afford the licence? That may have been the case in the past, but not today. Working-age adults are now more likely than pensioners to be in poverty. And adults with children are particularly at risk. If the concern is affordability, shouldn’t those so affronted at the BBC’s behaviour be agitating for a free licence for poor families?

In fact, the BBC is continuing to prioritise pensioners; poor pensioners. Any household with at least one person on means-tested Pension Credit will still receive a free licence. For many elderly people struggling with loneliness their television is a lifeline – the £155 annual fee should not be a barrier. But where over-75s can afford to pay, there is no rational reason why they shouldn’t.

This new approach will cost half a billion less which, the BBC claims, will allow it to continue providing services that benefit a wider cross section of the public. Social media is saturated with calls for the Beeb to instead slash its eye-watering presenter pay packets – but whether or not you think Gary Lineker is worth £1.8 million, the total annual spend on presenters is nowhere near the £500 million saving. The real problem is that the BBC is competing against other broadcasters and content providers, which means it has to attract and retain top talent, but is subsidised by what is effectively a tax. Surely the real answer is to scrap the fee entirely and move to a subscription model.

But in the absence of such a radical shift, rather than castigating the BBC, politicians might like to take a moment to recognise the broadcaster’s courage. Throughout David Cameron’s austerity government, pensioners were protected from cuts to benefits. While the state pension increased in value year to year thanks to the generous ‘triple lock’, working-age benefits, those given to people struggling to make ends meet, were frozen. Free bus passes, TV licences and non-means tested Winter Fuel Payments remained untouched.

The BBC has dared to go where grey-vote-fearing politicians have not. Their decision is fair and financially responsible. Tory candidates for Prime Minister could learn a lot from Auntie.