By Policy Analyst, Jeremy Hutton
It has emerged that the government is set to shelve plans to reform the BBC. Despite widespread public support and promises made throughout the general election campaign last year - the PM looks set to u-turn on decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee.
According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers have decided to kick the can down the road because they are worried decriminalising the “TV tax” could lead to an even harsher system whereby the BBC turns to bailiffs to chase up unpaid licences.
Clearly, the idea of a bailiff showing up bullying the vulnerable into paying for the right to watch Countdown and Corrie is an appalling proposition. However, if this is the approach that the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is taking then you have to wonder if the government was ever seriously considering meaningful reform of the licence fee in the first place.
Reform is not a matter of criminalisation alone, but of whether the licence fee should exist at all. Support for decriminalisation and reform of the licence fee is high. The TPA’s recent survey found near unanimous agreement that fee payers do not think the BBC is good value, that it is biased and overpays its staff and, finally, that the licence fee should be decriminalised and abolished. No wonder then that over 5,000 TPA supporters took part in a government consultation on the issue.
What the government fails to see is actually quite obvious to licence fee payers all across the country - it is ridiculous that, to watch channels that pay for themselves through advertising, like ITV, Dave or even Channel 4 (which like the BBC is state-owned but manages to pay its own way), viewers must effectively pay a surcharge to the BBC first or risk imprisonment. Fee payers similarly recognise that private digital services such as Netflix, Now TV and Prime Video operate sustainably on a subscription basis for a similar price to the TV licence (and arguably provide much better content). The Beeb’s reluctance to adopt a similar model rightly leaves viewers scratching their heads.
Instead of getting the best deal for taxpayers the government seems to be giving up on reform at the very first hurdle. Ministers must not lose their nerve. They must be bold and push for serious reform. The BBC’s funding model is analogue in a digital age. The government must not give up on decriminalisation and ultimately scrap the BBC licence fee. Tens of millions of Brits will thank them for it.