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Jonathan Miller

Macron’s axed French TV license is a lesson for BBC campaigners

Macron's axed French TV license is a lesson for BBC campaigners
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President Macron has finally found a policy he is capable of getting through the disputatious National Assembly, with a little help from Marine Le Pen and the rump centrist Républicains. He is abolishing the €138 (£116) redevance audiovisuelle, the rough equivalent of the TV licence. It was sold as a measure to tackle the cost of living crisis and passed despite the predictable squeals of the left and the French media elites which see the redevance as their special honey pot.

The redevance generates a colossal €3.2 billion (£2.7 billion) annually and its suppression will gain approving hurrahs from those who yearn for a similar liquidation of the British TV licence. But there’s less to this reform than meets the eye. It will likely not save French taxpayers a sou. And it increases the already malign influence of French politicians over the media.

The redevance might be dead but the taxpayers will continue to pay. The budget of the swollen French state television and radio apparatus will henceforth be financed through VAT, which merely makes the subsidy less visible. The elite Parisian leftist groupthink that characterises all of French state broadcasting will not change. Politicians will be listened to more attentively than ever because they will decide the future level of subsidies. It’s incidentally improbable that the state broadcasting monolith will be able to do much to arrest a trend of falling, ageing audiences. The young are abandoning state TV and radio for their mobiles.

French tastes are not as highbrow as might be imagined in the commissariats of culture. ‘Les Experts’ (Crime Scene Investigation), an American import, has been wildly popular in France. France Télévisions meanwhile pursues a policy of kowtowing to politicians and fighting for its own survival against a tide of indifference for its often unremarkable offerings. The radio stations are as leftist and conformist to elite preoccupations as anything on the BBC.

French media is addicted to subsidies of one kind or another, and bringing the financing of state broadcasting under the shelter of general taxation will only serve to remind them who calls the shots.

Newspapers receive a subsidy for every copy they sell; local newspapers get an additional subsidy from the regions and departments for carrying page after page of government-sponsored advertisements for public procurement – all of it could be posted on the internet for nothing. Le Monde and Le Figaro get €16 million (£13 million) each.

Even the New York Times, which prints a few thousand papers a day here, has received subsidies. The figures were kept secret for years. Individual journalists holding an official press card benefit from a concessionary income tax rate. Cosy?

The effect of these subsidies has been to produce a moribund media landscape favouring incumbency and conformity over dissidence and innovation.

What lessons exist here for the BBC? It looks like abolishing the TV licence would be less controversial than BBC luvvies might suggest. French voters are unhappy subsiding a media class that belittles and infantalises them. This is equally true in Britain. But what both countries have in common is the refusal of their governments to get out of the media business. If the BBC or France Télévisions were as loved as they claim to be, neither should need to be financed from any tax, no matter how it’s labelled.

Just yesterday, the BBC claimed to be reducing its property estate to concentrate its funding on ‘the programmes and services audiences love’. If they are so loved, why do they spend £100 million a year chasing and prosecuting nearly 200,000 people a year who decline to pay?

The lesson from France for those who yearn to reform the structures and finance of so-called public broadcasting in Britain is that shifting the nonsense licence fee into general taxation is likely to be a change for the worse.

Written byJonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, who lives near Montpellier, is the author of ‘France, a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (Gibson Square). His Twitter handle is: @lefoudubaron

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