The government has announced an eight-week public consultation on whether or not it should continue to be a crime for people who watch television not to buy a TV licence. The decision will have a major bearing on the BBC’s future income. But the debate over decriminalisation  is probably only the beginning of a much more radical questioning of the way the BBC should be funded. Some are arguing that the whole licence fee system should be scrapped and replaced by one in which a subscription should be charged only to users of BBC services. Those who watch telly but don’t watch the BBC wouldn’t have to pay anything. Change, one way or another, looks inevitable.

This week the BBC announced that from April the licence fee would go up by £3 a year to £157.50. This is in line with a deal struck with the government that the fee should rise only in line with inflation until 2022. Last year it raised £3.69bn for the BBC. Everyone who watches television is legally required to buy this licence whether they watch BBC programmes (and iPlayer) or not. Twenty-six million households bought the licence.

Until now television-watchers over the age of 75 have been exempt from paying the licence fee. For a long time the government coughed up the money to cover the loss. Some time ago, however, it persuaded the BBC to fork out for the over-75s, but the BBC has subsequently decided it can’t afford to do so, with the result that only those pensioners in this age group who qualify for Pension Credit will be free of the need to buy a licence. This means that those at risk of breaking the law by failing to buy a licence will then include many OAPs.

In 2018 over 121,000 people were convicted and sentenced for failing to pay the TV licence. The average fine was £176, though a penalty of anything up to £1,000 is possible under the current law. Five people were jailed for evasion. All of those convicted received a criminal record.

When she introduced the consultation Baroness Morgan, the Culture Secretary, said: ‘As we move into an increasingly digital age, with more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, the time has come to think carefully about how we make sure the TV licence fee remains relevant in this changing media landscape. Many people consider it wrong that you can be imprisoned for not paying for your TV licence and that its enforcement punishes the vulnerable’.

Possible alternatives include imposing instead a ‘civil monetary penalty’ for failure to pay, rather along the lines of being given a parking ticket: you have to pay the ticket but you don’t get a criminal record. Another option is treating non-payment of the licence fee as a ‘civil debt’, similar to what happens if you don’t pay your council tax or utility bills. Again you don’t get a criminal record.

It’s reckoned that decriminalisation would cost the BBC around £200m in foregone revenue. That may not seem much in a budget of £3.7bn but the BBC is already having to impose major cuts, such as the £40m cut recently announced in the budget for news and current affairs.

To many, however, decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee is only the first step in a much more radical plan to change the way the BBC is funded. Opponents of the licence fee regard it as hopelessly anachronistic and no longer justifiable. It may have been a sensible way to fund the BBC in its early days when it had a monopoly in radio and television broadcasting in Britain. Even when advertising-financed ITV came along to join it in the 1950s, no one really argued that the licence fee wasn’t still the best way to fund Britain’s public service broadcaster. But by the 1990s, when cable and satellite television were offering many choices of television programme to watch at the cost of additional subscriptions, the licence came into question. And now with subscription-funded streaming services such as Netflix and other platforms also in the frame, the clamour against the licence fee has grown strongly.

Inevitably, in this radically different  broadcasting environment, the BBC’s share of the total audience has fallen, especially among the young. It simply isn’t fair, campaigners for abolition of the licence fee argue, that people who barely watch the BBC should have to pay an obligatory licence fee, even if it should become no longer a crime not to do so. The BBC should be accessed via subscription, like every other broadcast or streamed service, they argue.

If that were to happen it would have an enormous effect on the BBC. It has been calculated that if the same proportion of British households subscribed to the BBC as American households do to Netflix, then the BBC’s income would fall from £3.7bn a year to £2.1bn. Clearly the BBC would no longer be able to do anything like what it does now. It has long argued that the licence fee could be justified only if the BBC provided a truly comprehensive service, covering everything any viewer might want to watch and fulfilling Lord Reith’s original remit to ‘inform, educate and entertain’.

To some advocates of radical change, ending the BBC’s mission to be so comprehensive would be just fine. They argue that because there is so much now provided elsewhere there is no longer any need for the BBC to try to do everything (and become, as they see it, a huge, bloated bureaucracy in the process). Ending the licence fee and slashing the BBC’s budget would ensure that it couldn’t carry on as it is. Great, they say.

Defenders of the BBC, however, say this would be a dangerous move on many grounds. In the first place they point out that the BBC is an immensely valuable global brand, perhaps the prime symbol of Britain around the world: Sir David Attenborough is almost as totemic as the Queen. For a government that aspires to transform the country, post-Brexit, into ‘Global Britain’, it would be an act of extraordinary self-harm, they argue, if it were to cut the BBC off at the knees in this way.

Secondly, they point out that BBC journalism is uniquely trusted and admired throughout the world and at a time when so much broadcast news is suspect and when genuinely ‘fake’ news is now almost the norm on social media, protecting the BBC as a global journalistic force is vital. There is no guarantee, they argue, that a BBC cut down almost by half following introduction of a subscription system would be able to maintain these standards. Thirdly, they say, the licence fee is just three quid a week, unbelievably good value for what you get.

Within the government it would seem there are many different opinions. There are undoubtedly some very senior figures  who have been gunning for the BBC for years and now see their chance. Others, though, are far more cautious. Lady Morgan in her statement on Wednesday was careful to talk about ‘how we make sure the TV licence remains relevant in this changing media landscape’ (ie: ‘keep it, don’t scrap it’) and went on to talk about the BBC as an ‘incredibly important organisation in the UK and around the world’.

The BBC’s current charter lasts until 2027 so the licence fee system is guaranteed for a while. Intense discussion about how or even whether the charter should be renewed will start building over the next year or two. Meanwhile there is the more immediate question: should non-payment of the licence fee continue to be a criminal offence?

What’s your view? Let us know. 

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