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On Defending Big Pay for BBC Celebrities

To be honest, I like the fact that so many people are defending the BBC’s policy towards overpaying their overhyped celebrities. I like that they want to rationalize eye-watering salaries, claiming they must be justified because the same presenters have been presenting the same things for the last 20 years, and hence they must be uniquely qualified to keep on presenting the same things for another decade or so. I like that ‘activists’ who routinely complain about the income of CEOs – despite the typically short tenure of most CEOs, their responsibilities to shareholders and all the legal obligations that hang over them – think it preferable to give even more money to somebody tasked with introducing clips from sporting events. My perverse pleasure stems from the fact that this reflexive devotion to the BBC demonstrates something important about the BBC’s supporters, and about Britain more generally. It demonstrates that the BBC is not, cannot, and never will be the thing that its fans pretend that it is. The BBC is not a unifying force. It is not something that all British people can feel proud of. It is not representative of what is good about this country. Instead, the BBC represents the interests of factions of British society, and as our society becomes more factional, so does the BBC.

Like any political coalition which seeks broad appeal, the BBC has to appeal to many different factions. We should list some of them. The BBC represents the comfortable middle class who want cheaper telly subsidized by a flat tax on the poorest members of society. The BBC represents rich celebrities who like to signal populist virtues whilst enjoying unusual job security and pretending their enormous pay packets are hostage to market forces. The BBC is a hundred rich and powerful men arguing that transparency is uniquely bad when they become subject to it, and that the only good which will come from telling the truth is that a hundred women will soon receive obscene salaries too. The BBC is activists with friends who get them on telly shows, immediately making them more important than they really are. The BBC is nepotism, and Oxbridge, and access to the corridors of power, and the friend of every institution that says and does enough to hold on to privilege without really changing that much. Ultimately the BBC is a continuous war of the tens of thousands of people who receive their pay directly or indirectly from this corporation, against the 6-7 percent of the population who routinely watch telly without paying the BBC to do so.

People keep saying the BBC represents value for money. The BBC is an institution that takes £3.74bn a year from feepayers but has to spend £100mn just on collecting that money, in order to keep the ‘cost’ of evasion below £300mn. That’s a terrible ratio, with too much spent on collection. It reveals an obsession with evasion compared to other taxes. Because it is a crime not to pay your BBC entertainment bill – whilst it is not a crime to fail to pay for your electricity, water or gas – the BBC abuses the UK’s legal system by choking up magistrates courts with 180,000 cases each year. In other words, BBC demands for payment represent about 1 in every 8 cases that magistrates deal with.
Apparently all this is necessary as a ‘public service’, because nobody would broadcast or watch football unless Gary Lineker earned 10 times the wages of the Primeminister just to introduce it. Or because some people find adverts so unwelcome that they’d rather see their neighbour criminalized than allow them the choice to watch genuinely free TV without needing to pay a surcharge to the BBC.

When I moved back to the UK, I found my mailbox contained 6 warning letters from the BBC, all vaguely threatening to take me to court. BBC threats have to be vague because they are dishonest, and designed to fool people with limited education. In the 5 years since that time I have never purchased a licence, and not legally needed to. As a consequence, I receive a threatening letter every two months, each one saying the BBC is about to ‘investigate’ me, and telling me what will happen in court. The one time I was ‘investigated’ I learned something important about the people who collect BBC revenues. They use lies to trick people into paying money that is not owed. I was told that the previous occupants of my home had purchased a TV licence, so I must need one too. The liar even looked down at his clipboard, pretending he was reading from his notes. He walked off without another word when I observed that there had been no previous occupant of my home, because I was literally the first person who moved into my newly-built property.

So it makes me very glad that so many people are defending the BBC. They want to pretend they represent most people but they clearly do not. They want to pretend they are moral, but they are not. They only represent themselves, and their own selfish interests. They represent their faction, which might ally with other factions, but doesn’t represent their country. I am of Britain too, and these people do not represent me, even though they would gladly rewrite history and distort the news to pretend that people like me do not exist, or do not deserve to exist, or should not be allowed to exist. The BBC exists to represent them, by misrepresenting people like me. These people do not represent me, just as the BBC will never represent me.

Nor do these people represent my disabled neighbour, who was nearly intimidated into buying a second duplicate licence because of the BBC’s vague and baseless threats of court action. They do not represent millions of people who reasonably believe that the BBC could be offered as a subscription service to those who want it, without demanding payment from those who do not. They only represent an illusion of Britain, a fiction that suits their prejudices, as shown to them by the BBC. That is why they watch it, and why they want everybody else to pay for it too.

In a free society, if most people wanted to pay for the BBC they could, and wouldn’t need to be compelled to do so. What we have is a politically gerrymandered system where enough factions – the greedy, the vain, the lazy, the self-important, the authoritarian – want to maintain a mode of payment first introduced in 1946 because it benefits them. And because change is hard, they’ll hold on to this corrupt system for as long as they can, even though the notion of a national ‘broadcaster’ is incoherent as we transition to the supply of audio-visual content across a global internet.

It encourages me to see so many people defending the BBC because it proves the BBC can only persist so long as its lackeys and stooges pour energy into protecting it from people like me. I hope they continue to defend the BBC, and to do so loudly, and repeatedly, because it draws attention to the fact that the BBC tax would be scrapped tomorrow if they were not always defending it. That is because they are not defending the BBC from a few Tory MPs or from the right-wing press or whatever bogeyman they would prefer to complain about. They are defending the BBC from millions of straightforward and ordinary people like me. And that tells us who the BBC is for, and why the rest of us do not want it.

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