BBC License Reform

I’ve just received an email from asking me to sign a petition to stop the Government decriminalising the non-payment of the TV License Fee. Clearly they don’t know me.

If I don’t pay my Netflix do they try and give me a criminal record? No, they cut me off. Same with Sky, my water, phone, electricity, gas, broadband and other service providers. They may take civil action to recover outstanding debts but they can’t make me a criminal, take away my livelihood, even jail me. The only other service you can use and be criminalised for not paying is using public transport without a ticket – that is treated effectively as deliberate theft and you always have a choice not to board a bus or train.

If you want to consume a rival competitor service, e.g. ITV, you need to pay the BBC for the priviledge. If you refuse you will be fined. If you refuse to pay the fine, eventually you will be imprisoned. I don’t pay Tesco to use Morrisons, so why should I pay the BBC to use Sky. Criminalisation of non-payment of the license fee is immoral and unjustifiable.

But let’s look at what you get for your license fee. The BBC is huge. It is the largest broadcaster in the world by number of employees, 22,000 of them, 35,000 of them when you include part time and contractor staff. BBC News is the largest broadcast news gathering operation in the world. The BBC operates 8 national TV stations, 2 regional language TV stations, 10 national radio stations, 6 sub-national radio stations, and a network of 40 local radio stations. It has one of the largest and most comprehensive online news websites in the world, 5 staff orchestras, a professional choir, Then it has 13 commercial TV stations operating worldwide, 7 national commercial TV stations in the UK via 100% ownership (since April 2019) of UKTV (Dave, Alibi, Gold, etc.). It has a 10% stake in the new BritBox subscription service. It has, over the years grown into a vast media empire, and it has grown this large on the back of a guaranteed income stream enforced by criminal sanctions if you do not contribute.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for high quality online and broadcast news content independent of Government and independent sponsors. There is a place for commercial free entertainment. There is a place for national radio stations. There is a place for content that could not be sustained by commercial value. But those places do not have to involve becoming a vast media conglomerate funded by force.

So, I would like to see the Government carry out a full-scale review of the BBC with a remit to preserve independence and integrity but with everything else up for grabs. I would cut out BBC3 and BBC4 TV channels and merge CBBC and CBeebies. I would cut back the national radio stations to 4 (Radio 3 content is duplicated largely by commercial operations), and sell off the local radio network to commercial interests. BBC News (online and broadcast), Current Affairs, niche and minority language programming, and radio to be paid for via a fund to be set without political interference. Personally I think the rest should be funded via a subscription of no more than £10 a month. No license fee, no criminal sanctions, the choice not to use BBC services so they don’t have to fund pensioners’ viewing.

I won’t be signing that petition. The reverse – I’d like the Government to take an immediate decision to decriminalise non-payment of the license fee and make it a civil debt until wider reform can take place.