Macron’s removed French TV license is a lesson for BBC campaigners
President Macron has finally found a policy he is able to push through the dissenting National Assembly, with a little help from Marine Le Pen and the rump centrist Republicans. It removes the audiovisual license fee of €138 (£116), the approximate equivalent of the TV licence. It was sold as a measure to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and passed despite predictable cries from the left and France’s media elites who see the fee as their special honeypot.
The levy generates a colossal €3.2billion (£2.7billion) a year and its scrapping will command approval from those who seek a similar liquidation of the UK television license. But there is less in this reform than it seems. It probably won’t save French taxpayers a dime. And it increases the already malign influence of French politicians on the media.
The levy may be dead, but taxpayers will continue to pay. The budget for France’s bloated state television and radio apparatus will now be financed by VAT, which only makes the subsidy less visible. The groupthink of the left-wing Parisian elite that characterizes the whole of French public broadcasting will not change. Politicians will be listened to more carefully than ever as they decide the future level of subsidies. Moreover, it is unlikely that the monolith of state broadcasting can do much to arrest a trend of declining and aging audiences. Young people are abandoning state television and radio for their cell phones.
French tastes are not as scholarly as one might imagine in the cultural commissariats. ‘Les Experts’ (Crime Scene Investigation), an American import, was extremely popular in France. France Télévisions is pursuing a policy of bowing down to politicians and fighting for its own survival in the face of a wave of indifference for its often innocuous offers. The radio stations are as leftist and conformist to elite concerns as anything on the BBC.
French media are addicted to subsidies of one kind or another, and shielding state broadcasting funding from general taxation will only serve to remind them who decides.
Newspapers receive a subsidy for each copy they sell; local newspapers receive an additional subsidy from regions and departments to run page after page of government-sponsored advertisements for government contracts – all of which could be published on the internet for nothing. The world and Le Figaro get €16m (£13m) each.
Even the New York Times, which prints a few thousand newspapers here a day, received subsidies. The figures remained secret for years. Individual journalists holding an official press card benefit from a reduced rate of income tax. Comfortable?
The effect of these subsidies has been to produce a moribund media landscape favoring seniority and conformity over dissent and innovation.
What lessons exist here for the BBC? It seems that abolishing the TV license would be less controversial than the BBC luvvies suggest. French voters resent weakening a media class that belittles and infantilizes them. This is also true in Great Britain. But what the two countries have in common is their governments’ refusal to withdraw from the media business. If the BBC or France Télévisions were as beloved as they claim, neither should need to be funded by any tax whatever its label.
Just yesterday, the BBC said it was cutting its building stock to focus funding on “the programs and services people love”. If they are so loved, why are they spending £100m a year suing and prosecuting nearly 200,000 people a year who refuse to pay?
The lesson from France for those aspiring to reform the structures and funding of so-called public broadcasting in Britain is that shifting the absurd license fee to general taxation is likely to be a change for the worse.