As BBC staff trudge into work at Broadcasting House they can see on the wall some words of their former colleague, George Orwell:
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
But once safely ensconced in the building, this uncomfortable thought is quickly disregarded. The safe space of group-think has been entered. Diversity is an imperative – except for diversity of opinion. Soap operas, current affairs, music awards, comedy shows, women’s programmes, children’s programmes… all must conform to the orthodoxy of the BBC “values”. Supposing someone at the BBC was to speak up at editorial meetings for Brexit, or the free market, or Christianity? What if they had a bright idea for a story about how well Donald Trump is getting on? Supposing someone at CBBC thought a patriotic item on British inventions is overdue? Maybe one of the team on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour feels that an anti-feminist item might deserve a hearing? Such thought crimes would be most imprudent. Those in the BBC caught muttering anything that their superiors “do not want to hear” can not expect to progress very far.
There is a difficulty for the BBC: despite their best efforts, the Conservatives won the General Election. There can never have been a time when special pleading from the Corporation will be considered with less sympathy.
But there is a more fundamental difficulty that the financing arrangement is increasingly out of date. The number paying the licence fee has been falling sharply, by nearly a million a year. That is not only due to evasion but to people, quote legally, choosing alternative viewing instead which they regard as better value for money. A basic Netflix subscription costs £72 a year. From April this year, the annual cost of the BBC licence fee goes up to £157.50. Just as telephone landlines are in decline so are TV sets. A recent poll found that three-quarters of people want the licence fee abolished.
Technology has also eroded the “public service broadcasting” relevance. For instance, why do we need the BBC Parliament Channel when Parliament’s website carries a much more extensive service? That allows us all to listen in to the most obscure select committee hearing according to our every whim.
The Government has just launched a public consultation on whether non-payment of the TV licence fee should remain a criminal offence.
The case for reform in this area is strong. There is the principle that the law should be applied in an equal and consistent way. Most debt collecting is a civil rather than a criminal matter. Why should there be imprisonment for failing to pay a TV licence, but not for an electricity bill or being behind with the rent? The usual minimum threshold before someone is forced into bankruptcy is £5,000. So why should the more severe punishment of imprisonment be applied for owing much less than that with the TV Licence? (Or indeed for Council Tax?) A total of 129,466 people were prosecuted for not having a licence in 2018, although only five were imprisoned. Often it is a single mother who is dragged through the courts.
A committee of MPs concluded five years ago:
“Our view is that criminal penalties for the non-payment of the licence fee and the way enforcement is carried out is anachronistic and out of proportion with the responses to non-payment for other services.”
It has become all the more anachronistic since then.
The BBC should also be firmly told that they must stick to the deal they agreed in 2015 to cover the cost of providing free television licences for over-75s. In return, the Government agreed that those using iPlayer on their computers, even if they don’t have a TV set, should be liable. At the time the BBC said it was the “right deal… in difficult economic circumstances”. The proposition is that 3.7 million pensioners will lose their free TV licenses to allow enough funds to pay Gary Lineker £1.75 million a year, Graham Norton £600,000 a year, Nicky Campbell £410,000 a year. No. No. No.
Eventually, the BBC must surely switch to a subscription model – though I think there is a special case for continuing to fund the World Service. The objection that not enough people would choose to take out subscriptions for it to maintain its current budget is not sustainable. It does still have many assets – not least its huge and lucrative archive of programmes.
But decriminalisation is a politically shrewd initial start by the Government. it is a way of holding together its coalition of supporters. Free market radicals and outraged Brexiteers will cheer. It fits in with the “one nation” theme of compassion for those struggling to cope. It also shows acceptance of the modern world of technological change. If Labour and the Lib Dems are foolish enough to oppose the decision so much the better.