BBCI vividly remember car journeys through France with my family in the 1990s. As we headed north from Languedoc, travelling home at the end of a holiday, the only solace for my mother was the return of BBC Radio 4, available in long wave anywhere northwards of Bourges or Orléans. You can’t stop radio waves at the frontier, and refraction of the earth and the low frequency of LW signals (as opposed to FM) means half of France gets Radio 4.

So what about the internet? The BBC has been at the forefront of online broadcasting with many of its radio channels available online all the time, and TV programmes available on iPlayer. Yet this has also meant a blanket ban on some broadcasts and services outside the UK. Any football commentary on Radio 5 is UK only and on Saturday Live on Radio 4 this morning they had the temerity to read out a reader’s letter complaining that Saturday Live podcasts were not available to users outside the UK. Well, the presenter said with a chuckle, that’s because you don’t pay the license fee!

Hold on a minute. People outside the UK do not pay the fee, but we also do not have the opportunity to do so. There is a crude distinction: if you’re in the UK you get all BBC programmes because you pay the license fee. If you’re outside the UK you must be someone the BBC can patronise with lousy rubbish, leftovers, like BBC World News or remnants of the empire like BBC World Service. I live in Belgium most of the time, 1 hour 51 minutes from London by train – so closer to BBC television centre than half of the UK. I want all the BBC services a British resident should be able to get, and if there were a way to pay for that then I would be willing to do so – I’m one of the people that like the BBC. But there is no way.

There are ways around some of the restrictions – using Foxyproxy to make iPlayer think you live in the UK (video of how to do it here), and having a UK iTunes account so as to access podcasts that way. But this is breaking the rules to get what you want because the BBC seems to treat everyone beyond the British Isles differently. It’s frustrating.


  1. Hubert Mayer

    I think most EU members would be more interested in protecting their TV companies rather than helping the BBC to be available all over Europe.

    Regulations for TV are all still stuck in the 20th Century, at some point is has to all change to consider modern technology…

  2. @Ivan – I agree it’s not hard to do. But that doesn’t make it *right*!

    @Hubert – interesting to hear. Is it something for the EU to look at?

  3. Hubert Mayer

    Actually the BBC has tried a few times to offer solutions for those abroad, including the option to purchase access. However they have always been blocked, complaints from other broadcasters and rights holders etc.

    The only reason you can get BBC radio online is that its a bit of a legacy thing, ie they launched radio online before anybody complained and as its already there its just allowed to stay.

  4. Ivan Petrov

    Guys its really easy to get the BBC anywhere, VPN or Proxy is all you need. You suggest using foxy proxy and that may be OK in France but its not going to work for you on the other side of the world, like in Australia, as its just too slow. ALso you cant download with foxyproxy, only watch. There are many different paid proxies and VPNs, which to be honest are pretty cheap, that will give a better service.

  5. And Mark Kermode’s film review podcast has listeners who e-mail in from all over the world. What’s going on?

  6. Why not write to the Commission about this, Jon? I’ve not thought hard about this, but if the BBC is actively preventing people from accessing programmes elsewhere in the EU, might this not be a breach of article 49 TEC on the free movement of services? Okay, a service is something “normally” provided for money according to the ECJ, but the fact that they happen to be free to you doesn’t automatically take broadcasting services outside the definition. In fact the BBC in its own argument seems to be attempting to tie them to a form of indirect payment. And if they are services within the Treaty, how can its restriction on free movement be justified as suitable to its aim, if it doesn’t target tourists in the UK accessing services, or prevent Belgian TV viewers seeing them?

    Also, DCMS and the BBC may well be terrified by anything that gets the BBC embroiled in arguments about EU law – it’s one of those very British anomalies, this state-funded body competing with commercial broadcasters, that starts to look vulnerable to change when you cast the harsh light of competition, state aid and internal market law on it. I don’t want the BBC to be forced to change to be more commercial, and I doubt you do either, but there it is. You might find they’re so keen to avoid scrutiny from the Commission that a letter from it, attaching yours, frightens them so thoroughly that they actually take the issue seriously.

  7. Aaargh. Hear/here.

  8. I’ve always found the World Service to be head and shoulders above the domestic Beeb for non-parochial coverage.

    However, I’m hear to wonder whether is any help – they offer (according to the WS) BBC in France and Germany. Nothing in Belgium, but then you travel….

    What do MEPs do to stay up to date?

  9. @robert – I do listen to it from time to time. I don’t doubt that World Service has good analysis, but that doesn’t stop it being like a remnant of the British empire in terms of how things are presented.

    As for the shot about me being a party member – look at this blog and judge for yourself. I think it has a fair record in terms of being critical of party politics, and wanting good quality of analysis. I rest my case.

  10. We have had “television without frontiers” for two decades, but the European public service broadcasts are still not available freely on the web.

    This is what the EU should achieve, in short order.

  11. robert

    I’m afraid I totally disagree with your opinion on the World Service. I listen to it quite frequently here in the UK and it is much better at reporting and analysing international events (and even those in the UK) than domestic BBC radio. You can only call it a ‘remnant of the empire’ if you haven’t actually listened to it.

    I hope, being a party member, you don’t think party politics is more important that real politics and real issues. In other words, an analysis of the issue of climate change or the world economy is more important that infighting around a party leader. Sometimes I find the pettiness of reporting on R4 Today programme to be unbearable.

  12. Situation in Austria: The Austrian public broadcaster ORF has two channels with the second being available via satellite as a special “ORF 2 Europe”. This is free TV but only broadcasts non-licenced material like news and ORF’s own production.

    I heard however, that Austrian expats can choose to pay the national radio/TV fees and then you are eligible to get the decoder card for both national TV channels.

  13. iPlayer – yes, very fair point. But somehow in these sorts of debates significant issues that impact a lot of people are forgotten if other problems impact even more people. And when it comes to the license fee it’s always about how much it is and whether it should exist, nothing else.

    Equivalents of BBC – you might be right, although I am not really in the business of using any of them, except Sportschau on ARD for some highlights of the Bundesliga and Tagesschau because I like retro-style news…

    General point – yes, I could go on and on about how frustrating this is… Even Google gives different results on the basis of the IP address where you connect. Can no-one seem to see that I am the same person wherever I am, and would like to be treated thus?

    So much for the internet bringing down national boundaries…

  14. Kosmopolito

    I share your frustration. It is also not fair for people that actually pay the UK license fee and travel a lot… And even if you do not pay the license fee you still can watch BBC iplayer while being in the UK. Somehow a flawed argument. And let’s not forget: BBC 1-4 is actually available on Belgian cable TV!

    Obviously this is not a specific BBC problem. Other (publicly funded) TV stations across Europe use the same line of argumentation when it comes to online services. Well, I could think of several “European” solutions here such as reciprocity or even a European license fee.

    Football is generally a huge problem as each national league seems to sell TV rights differently and with other provisions for online services.

    And on a more general note: it seems to me that “online borders” become more and more accepted in Europe. Recently I came across several online shops that didn’t even let me check their prices as they do not sell their stuff to people ‘abroad’…

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