When you are over 75, there are few perks in life as welcome as the free BBC television licence. Heaven knows, what with the increase in aches and pains, and the loss of people you love, life gets bleaker as you get older. But there is always the BBC. It’s always there, with a selection of enjoyable stuff, broad enough to satisfy us all.
There are more than five million people over 75 in the UK. Many of us live alone, far from our families. The old know loneliness and isolation, even depression. The BBC to them is more than entertainment. It’s a lifeline. It’s been there all our long lives and we’re immensely proud of it.
It’s a pillar of British civic life, world class, universally admired, the keeper of the nation’s archive and recorder of its history. In fact, there’s nothing on the planet like it: radio in all its rich variety, including music to suit all tastes and, probably top favourite for us oldies, Radio 4. Television of world-class standard, award-winning drama, concerts, the Proms, sitcoms, quizzes of every kind, gardening, Strictly, The Great British Bake Off; all with no intrusive commercials. What a blessing!
When I heard that the Government was planning to withdraw funding for free licence fees for the over-75s, and foist the cost onto the BBC, I was outraged and distressed. It’s one of the social benefits Government bestows on the old, like free bus passes and the winter fuel allowance. I think it’s quite sneaky to roll out social policy disguised as a BBC contribution to austerity. It isn’t for the BBC to decide how and who receives government support.
As my older friends began to worry what it will all mean, I considered whether anything could be done. And I took to Twitter. “Plenty of people over 75 could afford to pay the licence fee and would be pleased to do so to save the BBC they love,” I tweeted. I got a stream of support. Plenty agreed with me and wanted to know how to do it. Some explained it isn’t easy and means-testing is itself costly. But others wanted to persist; how can we help to save the BBC?
When I was old enough to receive the winter fuel allowance I decided it wasn’t for the likes of me – well-heeled middle-class people with enough money to pay.
My neighbour Robert Plant was bemused, too, when he received his. Didn’t they know he’s a millionaire rock star? So I tried to send the money back. I got a starchy official letter explaining, “There is no mechanism for taking this money back.” So I was stuck with it. I complained enough for others to get in touch. Then I heard you could contribute to a charity set up to take just such donations. Which I did.
When the Government tried the same move on the BBC five years ago, the then director-general Mark Thompson and the entire BBC Trust threatened to resign and the Government backed off. Today’s D-G, Tony Hall, says the financial blow – forecast at £745m by 2021 – will be ameliorated by new rules to make sure people who only watch iPlayer pay the licence fee, and ditching BBC funding of broadband internet rollout. But he must be smarting under the blow.
So what can we over-75s do? The BBC says it will introduce a scheme for those who want to opt back in to paying the licence fee. But that will take time. Right now I’m told the best plan is to get in touch with TV Licensing, who collect the fee, and tell them you want to start paying again. If you love the BBC, and if you can afford £2.80 a week, what are you waiting for?
Joan Bakewell presents Inside the Ethics Committee on Thursdays at 9am on Radio 4