BBC…Free?: The BBC licence fee is being questioned

March 3, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The BBC’s Royal Charter assured Licence fee has come under repeated attacks in recent weeks, with many questioning why the BBC still requires customers to pay a license fee. Further, there is a possibility that non-payment should become a  civil offence, rather than a criminal offence following the negative attention.

What does this mean?

The BBC stands at a crossroads. Funded almost entirely from a tax originally conceived of in 1923 for radios, the BBC currently asks for a licence fee of £154.50 (set to rise to £157.50 on 1 April 2020). However, questions are being asked by everyone from Baroness Morgan, the Culture Secretary, through to Gary Lineker, the highest paid BBC presenter, about why non-payment of the licence fee is still a criminal offence and why it even still exists.

During the 2019 election campaign, Boris Johnson made several thinly veiled threats about the future of funding to the BBC. Meanwhile Tony Hall, the Director General of the BBC, announced that he is stepping down from the role. Lord Hall leaves the role “to better allow his successor time to prepare for negotiations in the 2022 Royal Charter review with the Government”. However, his departure comes amidst several crises the broadcaster is facing, with debate over equal gender pay, diversity disputes, political impartiality, the steadily increasing threat of other streaming platforms and the aforementioned licence fee issue.

What's the big picture effect?

First and foremost, there are questions to be asked about the logic behind why it is considered a criminal offence for not paying for a TV license and then watching BBC channels. One of the key criticisms of the licence fee is the aggressive and overbearing way in which enquiries are made about whether homeowners have a TV licence. More worryingly, statistics have shown that the overwhelming number of those prosecuted are women, with women making up a whopping 72% of those prosecuted in 2018. To that end, Baroness Morgan has launched an investigation into making non-payment a civil offence. Many charities have praised this move, saying that it “decriminalises poverty” as well as helping women. However, the question then becomes, where does the BBC get its funding from?

With 650 job cuts already announced earlier this year (see our article on that here), and a drive to make £800m worth of cuts to re-allocate resources from linear broadcasting to digital content, the further loss or restructuring of the licence fee could allegedly have disastrous effects for the broadcaster. Iplayer, once described as “trailblazing” by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, is fast becoming dead in the water. With a government review of the licence fee set for 2022, and the end of the Royal Charter in 2027, the BBC will have to come up with answers fast.

Report written by Hari Majumdar

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