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Decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee is good, but the Government must go further

In an article published in the Daily Mail yesterday, Culture Secretary, Nicky Morgan, wrote:

"Twenty years ago Blockbuster, the then heavyweight of video rentals, turned down a £38 million merger offer from Netflix. Today Netflix is worth £50 billion, 1,300 times its offer to Blockbuster – which has gone from 3,000 stores to a museum in Oregon, for people who want to remember what video cassettes look like. Netflix now competes with the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple for dominance of the multi-billion-dollar streaming market. The result is that people now spend three times as much time watching subscription services such as Netflix than they do BBC iPlayer. More children now recognise the names Netflix and YouTube than they do the BBC. I believe, no matter how well-funded these international streaming giants are, UK public service broadcasters are vital".

It sounds as if the Culture Secretary realises that the writing is on the wall for the BBC; that the current funding model of a compulsory licence fee is well past its sell-by date. But no. This is how she ends her piece:

"So we are today launching a public consultation on whether to decriminalise TV licence evasion, making it a civil rather than a criminal offence. We'll also announce a new payment plan to allow people who struggle to pay the licence fee to spread out their payments evenly. We will closely consider the impact it could have on the BBC, as well as the British people who pay for the BBC. Accountability and value for money for taxpayers must be at the heart of how the BBC is funded. That's why we have made the BBC be more transparent about what it pays its highest-earning stars. Our mission is to help public service broadcasters be better prepared to meet the challenges of the digital age. We make no apology for being bold and ambitious. As the world around us changes, our laws must change too. It will require the BBC to be innovative and to move with the times. We don't want a beacon of British values and world-class entertainment ending up like Blockbuster". 

I don't think there is anyone in the country who want the BBC to end up like Blockbuster. For all its many faults, it still makes highly marketable television programmes which are sold around the world. The problem for the BBC is the licence fee. As Baroness Morgan readily accepts, we are spending three times as much time watching streaming services such as Netflix than we do watching BBC iPlayer. We also spend far more time watching streaming services than we do watching live television. 

I have been banging this particular drum for a number of years. I have stated that the BBC is clinging on to an analogue funding system in a digital age. And yes, the BBC as a result is becoming less relevant. 

Decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee is a welcome first step, but the Government must go further and say to the BBC that by the time the current Royal Charter ends on 31st December 2027, it will have to derive its income through voluntary subscriptions. If the Government announced such a move now, the BBC could not say that it does not have the time to make necessary changes.

There is a strong case to be made for public service broadcasting, and a debate should take place on how it is funded, however, there is plenty of time in the intervening seven years and eleven months to sort that out. 

Boris Johnson has a stonking Commons majority. This is one area where he could use it to good effect. 


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