LONDON — When a couple years ago I met Vladimir Bukovsky, the former Soviet dissident who spent a decade in the Gulag before being released in 1976, I asked him how he liked living in Britain. He said he loved it, pointing to the sense of fair play, intellectual curiosity, and good manners he found in his adopted Cambridge.
But a shadow crossed his face when he discussed British media. He said that while the British Broadcasting Corporation had once spoken for the entire nation and epitomized the highest of news standards, that was no longer the case. It was now slavishly in favor of European union, worshipful of climate change extremists, and opposed to Israel. “It now unfairly competes with private channels and has sunk to juvenile levels in much of its programming,” he told me. He revealed he hadn’t paid his annual $210 license fee–a fee required of every British television owner and which subsidizes some 75 percent of the BBC’s budget.
Knowing that the BBC was a stern bill collector that every year prosecutes more than 151,000 people for not ponying up, I asked him if he was worried. He said he wasn’t because in spite of his publicly stated willingness to go to jail, he knew the BBC would never want to make him a martyr. Sadly, he confessed he didn’t think his civil disobedience or that of his fellow refuseniks would ever get anywhere. “I wanted people to see images of me being handcuffed and dragged into court,” he wistfully told the London Times last year. “But instead the BBC retreated quietly.”
His pessimism may have been premature. Britain’s license fee is now under assault more than ever as surveys show that some 5 percent of TV owners refuse to pay it. This in spite of the menacing advertisements warning scofflaws to pay up. One features sounds of a whirring helicopter, a siren, barking dogs, and a menacing knock on a door as an announcer warns, “Your town, your street, your home, and it is all in our database.”
But two recent turning points in the Battle of the BBC came last fall. First, Britain’s media regulator warned that maintaining the BBC as it now exists would require $600 to $800 million in additional revenue on top of the $5 billion it now receives. But that insult to taxpayer sensibilities became a serious injury in November when an internal BBC report blasted network executives for allowing BBC host Jonathan Ross, who earns $9 million a year as the network’s highest-paid entertainer, and Russell Brand, a comedian who hosts a BBC radio show, to use Brand’s show for an obscene prank. On air, the two men had left a series of obscene messages on the answering machine of 78-year-old Andrew Sachs, an actor best known in the U.S. for playing the Spanish hotel worker Manuel in the 1970s comedy classic Fawlty Towers.
The messages, which were left after Sachs innocently failed to call in as a guest, included Brand’s claim that he had slept with Sachs’s granddaughter, whom he called a “satanic slut.” In a second call, he joked about the retired actor hanging himself as a result of their comments. The report criticized BBC executives who were said to have found the calls “very funny.”
In the ensuring uproar, many former BBC employees condemned the stunt. Will Wyatt, a former BBC president, denounced the comedians who made the call as “acting like drunken teenagers in a phone box trying to rag one of their chums.” In the end, Ross was suspended for three months and Brand left the network. The BBC may have to retreat further as proposals are now being debated inside the government to reduce its subsidy or share it with other broadcasters. David Davies, a Conservative member of Parliament, says: “Any more scandals like this and the license fee will become untenable.”
CHARLES MOORE, A COLUMNIST for the London Spectator and Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer, is another refusenik who has taken to the bully pulpit to denounce the license fee. “Such a tax has always been indefensible on principle, and now it is intolerable in practice,” he says. He notes that the proliferation of TV channels makes a compulsory $5 billion transfer to a government broadcaster to ensure “quality” programming an anachronism. He points out that New Zealand had a similar system but successfully scrapped it eight years ago with few complaints.
There is a growing sense that in an era of broadcast plenty, it’s ludicrous that a quasi-monopoly broadcaster such as the BBC should force British citizens to subsidize its biased and frequently insulting programs.
Indeed, in 2007 an official BBC report found that the network was institutionally biased, especially in its treatment of climate change, poverty, race, and religion. The Ross and Brand incident is only the latest in a series of black eyes for the “Beeb.” In 2003, a BBC reporter falsely accused the Tony Blair government of “sexing up” an intelligence report before the Iraq War. Several BBC executives had to resign. Then in 2007, it was discovered the network had edited a promotional video of an upcoming documentary on Queen Elizabeth to make it appear she had indignantly bowed out of a picture-taking session with photographer Annie Leibovitz. The network has also faked the results of phone-in contests on several occasions.
“At a time when taxes are rising, it would be a political winner for a party to promise the abolition of the license fee,” Mr. Moore writes in the Daily Telegraph. “But of course that won’t happen. Conservatives and Labour alike are terrified of the way the BBC would trash them if they did. So it falls to us the public.… Time, then, to revolt.”
This revolt may have more legs than people think. After all, there was a time when no one thought that Dan Rather would ever be forced to leave CBS or that Fox News would become the most popular cable news network.