Andrew Allison is Campaign Manager for the Freedom Association.
When I started working for The Freedom Association in February this year, the thought of the TV licence fee being scrapped was a distant dream. We knew there would be a debate ahead of charter renewal – there always is – but as with all charter renewal debates, there seemed an inevitability that the BBC would get its way and would continue to be funded in the same way it always has been.
Not so now, and for that we have to thank technology. Many commentators and industry experts have been warning the BBC for years that technological advancements will render the licence fee redundant. In January this year, an Ofcom report highlighted that 56 per cent of people in the UK now own a smartphone. The number of people owning tablets has risen exponentially (from 12 per cent in 2012 to 29 per cent in 2013), and in the last year the number of iPlayer requests has increased by 25 per cent. In last December alone, iPlayer received 271 million requests for television and radio programmes.
As more people own devices capable of receiving radio and television programmes, and are doing so on reliable, fast connections, it is hardly surprising that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of people using on-demand services.
As more people go online to watch TV programmes, the harder it is for the BBC to police those who have a licence and those who do not, as it is illegal for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide the details of those logging on to iPlayer. The sensible solution for the BBC would be to charge those who use this service, and that suggestion has been floated. But you cannot charge someone twice.
You can charge the licence fee and allow users to access iPlayer free at the point of use, or you can scrap the licence fee and offer iPlayer on a subscription basis. What you can’t do is force us to pay a licence fee and then start charging us for iPlayer, although I suspect if it thought it could get away with it, the BBC would do just that.
Decriminalisation of the licence fee is seen by some as a step along the way to its abolition. I would urge caution though. Making non-payment of the licence fee a civil matter increases the risk of those who genuinely cannot afford to pay being awarded County Court Judgments (CCJs) which would affect their ability to obtain credit for years. In some ways, they would be better off getting a criminal record for non-payment, than getting a CCJ.
As was highlighted on the front page of The Times (£) last Saturday, the technology does exist to block BBC channels for those who fail to pay the fee. This could not be done overnight as the BBC would have to encrypt its broadcast signals and new set-top boxes would have to be manufactured, or new cards would have to be distributed for viewers to place in the existing set-top boxes. This, industry experts predict, would take a few years, but importantly, the technology does exist.
The BBC is hanging on to the licence fee’s apron strings as if its life depended on it. I genuinely don’t know what it’s worried about. The BBC produces many excellent programmes; programmes that the vast majority would happily subscribe to. Abolishing the licence fee would allow companies to sponsor popular programmes like EastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing. Antiques Roadshow could easily be sponsored by an insurance company!
Without the licence fee the BBC could grow and flourish in a globalised media world without having to be accountable to licence fee payers, and would no longer have to appear before committees of MPs. Genuine public service broadcasting can – and should – be protected as it is in many other countries.
For those of us who object to paying a poll tax to watch live TV, the end of the licence fee cannot come soon enough. Recent developments this year have started the debate early. All that is needed now is for politicians to grasp the nettle and make change possible.