The BBC licence fee shake-up

The days of being faced with prison for not paying your television licence fee may be numbered. MPs of all parties have backed an amendment to a private members’ bill (the Deregulation Bill) that would result in a review of the current penalties for not paying your licence fee.

While no change will happen before the next election, from summer 2015 non-payment could become a civil rather than a criminal offence (in 2012, 51 people went to prison for not paying licence fee fines).

A wide range of figures, from Labour’s Harriet Harman to former BBC boss Lord Michael Grade, now support decriminalisation, according to The Guardian.

There is certainly a “legitimate debate” to be had about how the licence fee is collected, reports the Financial Times. But decriminalisation would mean “licence-fee defaults would probably rise”. In turn, this would “undermine the legitimacy of the fee” and mean “far-reaching changes to the essential character of the BBC”.

Although the national broadcaster “must be constantly open to the challenge of change”, it is important that “great care should be taken over how this is done”. Yet “the practical case for the measure is unarguable”, says Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan in The Daily Telegraph.

With prosecutions “silting up our criminal justice system”, treating an unpaid licence fee just like any other unpaid bill would save “a great deal of time and money”. It would also “remove the BBC’s monopoly”.

Removing the threat of prosecution means that effectively, the “fee ceases to be a tax and becomes a subscription”, turning the BBC into “a pay-on-demand service like its rivals”. This won’t hurt the quality of the programming – it will just make the BBC “more cost-efficient”.

The “reasonable consensus that 40p per household per day is worth paying for ad-free television and radio” is being eroded by “disillusion and political opportunism”, writes BBC Radio 4 presenter Libby Purves in The Times. The risk is that if the licence fee gives way to a subscription model, it would leave radio programming in particular very vulnerable.

While television “creates celebrity, fashion and tabloid excitement for other media”, radio “just doesn’t”. This would be sad because “our speech radio is a marvel: democratic, portable, nimble”.

While ‘sneerers’ may claim that it is “all elite or elderly” the truth is that it is “cherished by long-distance drivers, home workers, craftspeople”. So whatever happens to BBC funding, “someone had better… ring-fence… high-quality radio”.

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