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Time to Defund the BBC?

Ollie Lane
June 17, 2020

The Government needs to ensure at the very minimum that non-payment of the license fee shifts from a criminal matter to a civil matter, akin to any other household bill, as a first step towards reforming the BBC entirely, argues Ollie Lane

With a new campaign to defund the BBC, and finally end the license fee, seeing exponential growth in support over recent weeks since launching, it's now even clearer that ordinary people are not only apathetic to the BBC's bias and its poll tax, but are actively hostile to it.

This newfound grassroots activism, aimed at defunding the BBC, is a result of years of declining trust in our national broadcaster, and a broad acceptance that the BBC is no longer impartial.

While defunding the BBC is a laudable aim, it's hard to see the so called conservative Government undertaking anything so radical. Although totally defunding the BBC is unlikely to be on this Government's agenda, at the very minimum there needs to be reform to how the BBC is funded.

In the UK, even today, to legally watch live television you're required to have a TV licence, which goes towards funding the BBC. Now, while other TV subscription services are available, unlike the BBC they are optional. And critically, if you fail to pay your Sky or Virgin television subscription (or any other optional subscription service for that matter) the company concerned will pursue you for the money owed, and can even take you to civil court. The law ensures customers pay for goods they want supplied, but do not make failure to pay a criminal offence.

Given that it is not a criminal offence to not pay for those subscription services, why is it so for the BBC's licence fee, which is merely another service charge for customers? Right now, those caught watching TV without a licence can be fined up to £1,000 in addition to court costs, and in the last decade hundreds of people have been jailed for refusing to pay this fine.

Just let that sink in. Hundreds of people have been jailed, with thousands more ending up with criminal records, for refusing to fund the BBC.

Not only is this a monumental waste of Magistrates and Courts time, but the fact that those found guilty end up with criminal records is a stain on the UK's judicial system. Those disproportionally effected by this criminalisation are the elderly, and those most unable to afford to pay.

Earlier this year the Government proposed and launch a public consultation on whether non-payment of the TV licence fee should remain a criminal offence. While it's clear that public sympathy towards the BBC has all but been eroded, and that all reasonable people can now see that the media landscape has changed, the Government have so far resisted calls to majorly reform the BBC's funding model.

While it's clear that it's time for the license fee to be treated as an optional expense, in response to this public consultation the Government needs to ensure at the very minimum that the license fee shifts from a criminal matter to a civil matter, akin to any other household bill, as a first step towards reforming the BBC entirely.

Considering the UK's latest market data, released early this week, the reality of Covid-19's impact on the UK economy is starting to sink in. With a clearer picture of the impact the virus, and more importantly the lockdown, has taken we're now seeing a spike in unemployment, and all but unimaginable drop in GDP.

With the economic pain caused by lockdown beginning to take effect, it would clearly help household budgets to abolish the licence fee. At the very least, the Government should decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee, and use that as a first step towards making it optional.

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Ollie Lane has worked for a Conservative MP, and now works in the Charity Sector
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