Royalty, bulwark for public service or ideological totem?

On March 7, 2022 during his meeting in Poissy, the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, announced his intention to abolish the audiovisual license fee if he was re-elected.

This announcement was followed by a call for a strike and a day of inter-company mobilization Tuesday 28 June.

The levy is an unpopular tax and, a few weeks before the elections, such a declaration has drawn a number of unfavorable comments from its opponents, but also from the share of journalists' unions, authors' societies (the SACD, SCAM) and researchers. It seems legitimate to wonder about this statement and about the risks that the abolition of the license fee may pose to public broadcasting.

Initially, critics put on the same level the will of Emmanuel Macron and the proposals of Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour to abolish the royalty. However, the latter seek above all to privatize all or part of the public audiovisual sector. We can consider that the abolition of the license fee would be a first step towards the progressive privatization of public broadcasting.

However, supporters of the president tried to put out the fire: thus, the next day, the government spokesman, Gabriel Attal said on France-Inter : "Obviously we will continue to finance public broadcasting". Similarly, Jean-Marc Dumontet, cultural referent of En Marche and friend of the president declared on Arte: "let's not scare us for nothing", explaining the need for the abolition of the royalty because of the disappearance of the tax housing to which the fee is attached. He added that at a time of increased fight against disinformation and defense of national sovereignty, a strong and independent public service was needed. The options put forward for guaranteeing and sustaining funding, even if this funding were included in the budget of the Ministry of Culture, are upstream consultation with ARCOM and a five-year programming law.

The critics, on the other hand, insisted on the threat to the loss of independence of the public audiovisual sector with regard to politics, which would not no longer guaranteed by a dedicated tax.

They also talk about the need for long-term funding over several years, insofar as, particularly in television, projects take two to three years to hatch and cannot be envisaged within the framework of budgets annual. Others point out that “governments are always impecunious” (Jean-Noël Jeanneney in the aforementioned Arte program) and that as a result they would cut credits and increase advertising slots to compensate for the shortfall. Finally, actors from the cultural world are worried the drying up of funding for their productions or the growing place corporatism and lobbies that would not fail to lead to this reform[7].

Everyone fears a form of interference or pressure from the State if the financing of public broadcasting were to depend entirely on it. All the more so in a context of right-winging of the political landscape, with populist currents which are meeting with some success.

The fee and its limits

The license fee was introduced in France for radio in 1933, on the model that was already financing the BBC in the United Kingdom. In Europe, unlike the United States, the choice of a dual private/public sector was made out of order between the 1930s and 1950s, but it prevailed everywhere. At first, the levy seemed fair, since it was a matter of charging a tax only to households that owned a radio set, then a television set. But for nearly a hundred years, the media landscape and broadcasting techniques have evolved considerably.

Moreover, the fee has not been adopted or maintained everywhere: in the European Union, to which we can add the United Kingdom and Switzerland, 15 States have maintained the fee, 7 have abandoned it more or less recently and 7 others finance their public broadcasting through general taxation. Finally, the amount of the fee varies greatly, from €36 in Portugal to €340 in Switzerland ; it is indexed to inflation in Germany and Italy. In the UK, where it was also indexed, Boris Johnson's government froze it for two years – UK Culture Minister Nadine Dorries announced that the license fee, which the BBC wanted to raise to 180 pounds, would be frozen at 159 pounds (190 euros) until 2024 – and above all has stopped compensating for exemptions (for the disabled, very low incomes, etc.), i.e. around £800 million, which are now the responsibility of the BBC . In France too, the State compensates exemptions up to 600 million euros per year.

Royalty, an ideological totem

Thus, it is clear that an earmarked tax, no more than an unmarked budget line, does not guarantee the independence or long-term financing of the audiovisual public service. The fee is indeed a budget line among thousands of others in the general budget of France, voted each year by Parliament in the fall. However, any budget line can be increased, reduced or canceled each year by Parliament, on the recommendation of the government or not. And any change of majority can change or reverse the trend of the previous majority. Thus, the revenues of France Télévisions were cut by 146,5 million euros over the years 2018-2021; so again, when Nicolas Sarkozy decided to ban advertising between 20 p.m. and 6 a.m., he had promised compensation “to the nearest euro”, which was not kept. Ultimately, it is the Parliament that votes the budget...

The historian may add that the license fee did not protect the independence of the public service from pressures from the information ministers of the IVe and the first fifteen years of the Ve Republic. When Georges Pompidou introduced advertising to the ORTF, it was to avoid increasing fees. In Greece, the fee did not protect the independence of the public service during the dictatorship of the colonels between 1967 and 1974. And when Jacques Chirac decided to privatize TF1, the fee did not protect the channel either.

The importance of the democratic pact

It is therefore necessary to calmly imagine ways of financing the audiovisual public service by dispensing with the license fee or by modifying its mode of collection. Thus, in Portugal, it is the telephone operators who collect it. It is possible to opt for this solution in France, which would make it possible to broaden the tax base by taxing all boxes, even all laptops, and therefore would make it possible to reduce the price to be paid by each citizen. One can also imagine levying the fee on the property tax, with or without repercussions on the tenants, which would also make it possible to broaden the base and tax the multi-owners.

Finally, the simplest thing is to create an additional budget line in the budget of the Ministry of Culture, like the one that finances half of the revenue of Agence France Presse (which does not seem to be subject to power for all that) or those which supply the Support Fund for local social information media or the Support Fund for local radio expression. It will then suffice for parliamentarians to ensure, as they already do every year, and after consultation with public service companies and ARCOM, to fair, sustainable and sufficient funding for the public service to fulfill its mission defined by Jean d'Arcy in 1953: "to inform, cultivate, entertain".

Rather than supporting a license fee that must disappear with the housing tax, it is better to think about what is the basis of the democratic pact, of which strong funding for public broadcasting is a part, which in turn strengthens democracy. Yes, the countries with better public media funding have healthier democracy. However, the link between cause and effect is not easy to determine: is it a democracy in good health, as in the Scandinavian countries, in Switzerland or in Germany, which finances its public media more heavily? Or is it because public media are better funded that democracy is healthier? Obviously, it works both ways.

Patrick Eveno, Emeritus Professor of Media History, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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