As I wrote last summer, the BBC licence fee is not simply unfair, it is outdated and outpaced by technology. In an age of choice, subscription and micro-payment, being forced to pay a tax simply for owning a television is increasingly unsustainable.
The facts of technology and consumer behaviour may have changed, but the political orthodoxy was until recently that the BBC was untouchable – no-one would tolerate any government touching it or its funding model.
The last few weeks have shown how swiftly such a consensus can collapse. What might appear to be an immovable idea on which everyone supposedly agrees is often ready to crumble at a well-placed touch.
Even the BBC itself has now accepted internally that the funding model ought to be reviewed.
Yesterday we learned that the Government and the Opposition will now back Andrew Bridgen MP’s campaign to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee. His reasoned, calmly expressed argument that it is wrong to drag 180,000 people through the courts each year over something that ought to be treated like any other utility bill has justly won out, and he joins the ranks of campaigning backbenchers who are changing the nation for the better.
As a result of his hard work, a major burden on the criminal justice system will be removed, and people will no longer be tarred with a criminal record.
It also marks the start, not the end, of fundamental changes to the BBC’s funding model.
It is the corporation itself, ironically, which has ensured the changes will go further than simply moving enforcement from criminal to civil law. While cooler heads at New Broadcasting House accept the licence fee is outdated, some put up a shrill complaint that decriminalisation would weaken enforcement and result in lost revenue.
Presumably they did so in the hope that politicians would be frightened off implementing Bridgen’s reasonable reform. They weren’t, and are instead responding to the warning by looking at a system to block BBC channels for those who don’t pay the licence fee.
If it goes ahead, this would open the door to the real solution to BBC funding: subscription. If those who don’t buy a licence simply don’t get access to BBC content, then that is in effect a subscription service.
I agree with the BBC’s fans that much of its content is hugely popular, which is why I am confident the vast majority of people would opt to pay for it if given the choice. Supporters of the current licence fee model have yet to explain why, if Auntie is so beloved, a subscription model would threaten it in any way.
A system in which the BBC is funded by consenting viewers rather than by mass criminalisation and threatening letters would be better for the people and better for the long term prospects of the corporation. Crucially, it would also make the state broadcaster far more accountable to the people – and that, I suspect, is at the heart of opposition to the idea.