The debate around the BBC’s decision to restrict the provision of free TV licences to over-75s seems to bear all the hallmarks of the usual BBC bashing – from a section of the press that usually speaks up proudly for uniquely British endeavours. There couldn’t, by any chance, be some financial self-interest behind the attempts to lay this much-admired British institution low, could there?
Politicians – not programme-makers – made the decision to offer free TV licences to over-75s, paid for out of general taxation. In 2015, it was again politicians who, for short-term financial reasons, decided not to abandon this commitment but to hand it over to the BBC, to be paid for out of licence fee income. Faced with the loss of £750m from its budget – a fifth of its licence fee income – what choice did the BBC have?
It could have abolished the free licences altogether, a decision that would have been very harsh on the poorest pensioners – the very people who rely most heavily on the BBC’s services. It could have accepted the cut. Taking £750m out of the BBC’s budget would have meant the closure of BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC News channel, the BBC Scotland channel, Radio 5 Live and a number of local radio stations, as well as other cuts and reductions. Instead it decided to limit the free licence fees to the poorest pensioners – those least able to pay it themselves.
This was a decision forced on the BBC. It was action dictated by a government intent on shifting the blame for what was likely to be a deeply unpopular cut to another public institution. Between a rock and a hard place, the BBC took probably the only action it could. Public service broadcasting as we know it would have been changed for ever had it done otherwise.
Film and television bring over £8bn in revenue annually into the Treasury. But in a world increasingly dominated by the US media giants, there will be cultural as well as economic consequences if we allow our public service broadcasters to be diminished. Already the BBC and other public service broadcasters are starting to rely on international co-productions to bring ideas to the screen. And yet streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon have made no secret of their wish to eventually withdraw from these co-productions and finance the shows themselves, “buying up” British creative talent for their brand of “global television” – often set in some mythical mid-Atlantic state where characters dress, talk and think like Americans.
The ability to tell uniquely British stories, to hold a mirror up to life as it is lived in this country, remains hugely popular in the UK – and is central to our concept of public service broadcasting. That concept is almost 100 years old, and is admired all over the world. Hacking one-fifth out of the BBC’s licence fee income would have cut the heart out of it.
Outstanding programmes of recent years simply would not have been made. Dramas such as the powerful Three Girls, the sexual abuse drama set in Rochdale, which swept the board at the Baftas and had an audience of 8.1 million; factual programmes such as Climate Change: The Facts and Blue Planet II; comedies such as This Country, Inside No 9 and Back to Life. And drama adaptations like my own Wolf Hall – which was disproportionately popular with older audiences.
It’s strange to me how ready the rightwing press is to leap to the defence of the elderly when doing so presents another opportunity to bash the BBC. I wish it was similarly quick to anger when social care provision is slashed or hospital waiting targets missed, both far more damaging to the elderly poor for whom they now cry their crocodile tears.
The licence fee costs less than £3 a week. For that you get all the BBC TV channels, all of BBC radio – so valued by the housebound elderly – and all the catch-up services. And if you are poor and over 75, it will still be free. Given the Gordian knot with which the BBC has been presented, I don’t think this is such a bad solution.
• Peter Kosminsky is a British writer, director and producer