There is no such thing as a TV licence in Spain. There never has been, and the history of public broadcasting perhaps explains why. RNE, Radio Nacional de España, started in 1937. It was controlled by Franco’s Nationalists. Television Española’s first broadcast was in 1956. Who was in charge then?
As an arm of the regime, charging the public for radio and TV and therefore censored content, approved content and propaganda would have made little sense. For the public in the post-Franco times, a legacy was to be free broadcasting. RTVE, the state broadcasting company, is nowadays not solely reliant on the government for its funding, but this forms the lion’s share.
As it is an item in the annual budget, there have been not infrequent controversies about alleged political interference, regardless of who has been in power. There is a council for the purpose of safeguarding independence, but the controversies have arisen nonetheless. In the Balearics, the regional broadcaster, IB3, has a budget – a Balearic government budget – of 33.4 million euros.
This is the budget for 2022 and is equivalent to 0.52% of all government spending – a small amount, comparatively speaking, you might say. A small amount and roughly equivalent to the cost of a double dose of Pfizer vaccine for the Balearic population as was envisaged in February 2021, when Jorge Campos of Vox argued in parliament that the 34 million for IB3 (slightly under in fact) could be used to buy two million doses of Pfizer vaccine.
Like RTVE, IB3 has had its moments – accusations of interference, bias and so on. On top of this, where Campos was also concerned, was the audience reach – an average of 4.4%, he stated in parliament. The need for IB3 has been questioned, but the principle of a public broadcaster is one I would defend.
I take the arguments against IB3, but the cost in the general scheme of things isn’t huge, while there is specific provision in the budget for commissioning from local production companies – around a quarter of the total. The government has stated its commitment to this sector, so if a broadcaster is one way of demonstrating this, then fair enough.
A small regional broadcaster is not the same as RTVE and is a million miles away from the BBC. The global reach of the BBC’s news services is not far short of 500 million people per week. The World Service accounts for over 360 million, and this is a service which receives 94 million pounds from the Foreign Office in addition to what is allocated from the licence fee. (The 94 million annual supplement, up by eight million, was announced in May last year.)
The licence fee is back in sharp focus, placed there – so some reckon – as a means of diverting attention from Partygate. Maybe so, but this is merely an extension to a debate that has existed for years and which has, rightly so, been given sharper focus by the apparently anachronistic concept of a TV licence fee.
This is an anachronism shared with other countries. Germany is one, where the annual price is 220 euros, an increase of over ten euros a year having been agreed in September last year. There was no freeze, but the agreement was only reached once the matter had gone to the courts. Debates and arguments are thus had elsewhere and for the same reasons as those that surround the UK’s licence fee.
For myself, as someone who watches very little television, the BBC’s radio stations and website are a source of entertainment and also information. I otherwise draw mostly from Spanish sources. In strictly personal terms, the BBC is essential, an institution to be safeguarded and in which there should be a sense of national pride at a reputation that takes it around the world.
Yet I appreciate some of the argument and I also query part of the model. Were the BBC to require a fee to listen abroad, then I would pay. But it doesn’t on the basis that it is a broadcaster with such global reach.
The website has astonishing content, but how much revenue does it derive? There again, it is mercifully devoid of masses of ads and add-ons that render many websites – news ones in particular – unreadable or unusable.
A different model is needed, but not at the cost of devaluing an institution too easily attacked when it suits politicians and other media with differing political biases. The BBC has been either too right or too left, depending on who has been shouting the most and when they have been doing the shouting.
The Conservative Party can attack as much it likes in appealing to its hard-core supporters. But, and as an example, threaten certain services – let’s say Radio 4 – and the very same supporters in agreement will soon be offering a different opinion.