Raymond Snoddy asks if the Government's push for de-criminalisation of the BBC licence fee is motivated by malice or rational analysis
Before you can even start to consider whether de-criminalising the BBC’s licence fee is a good idea or not, a lot of political undergrowth and possible political malice has to be cleared away first.
Is it not truly extraordinary that a new Government facing massive decisions on everything from the terms of Brexit, the impact of a possible global coronavirus pandemic, to a £100 billion HS2 railroad and even building a bridge linking Scotland and Northern Ireland should be so troubled by the financing of the BBC.
After all the current BBC Royal Charter protecting the licence fee runs until 2027 and there is little sign of rioting in the streets over the issue. What possible urgency could there be at this particular moment?
The more you think about it the more it seems likely that the question on the issue posed to Boris Johnson at a haulage firm in Tyne and Wear four days before the election by an employee was either a plant, or at the very least carefully selected.
When are you going to abolish the BBC licence fee, Boris was asked, and out it all came - the row over the free licence fees for the over 75s, de-criminalisation and the fact that a compulsory licence may not be a sensible way to fund a single media organisation in the longer-term.
Perhaps it was a piece of opportunism. That very morning Johnson had dropped his major gaffe – refusing to look at the picture of a four-year old sleeping on a hospital floor and instead pocketing a reporter’s phone and the comments on the BBC a useful deflection.
In view of what has happened subsequently it seems much more likely that the attack on the BBC is serious, premeditated and malicious and is inspired by a belief that BBC coverage of the election was biased against Johnson and his Conservatives.
Then there are the activities of Baroness Morgan, who resigned as Culture Secretary after a few weeks, did not stand in the election and then went to the Lords to become Culture Secretary again, before probably standing down yet again in the imminent re-shuffle.
Despite these manoeuvres the Baroness, presumably acting under orders, had time to launch an eight-week public consultation on licence fee decriminalisation and say a lot of very silly things.
One of the most ridiculous was to suggest she did not want the BBC to go the way of Blockbuster. Excuse me? Blockbuster rented videotapes while the BBC was early into the internet, developed the iPlayer and was only prevented from being a pioneer in streaming by idiotic economic regulators.
In fact the BBC has been at the forefront of broadcasting technology for decades, another small thing funded by the licence fee that the average viewer does not appreciate.
There is obviously a lack of connection between different areas in the Baroness’s brain.
She waxed lyrical about the importance of the universal availability of the BBC and the UK’s other public service broadcasters being able to create shared moments that bring the country together.
She marvelled that nearly 12 million of us had sat down at the same time to watch the Gavin and Stacey Christmas special, making it the most watched comedy in 17 years. A national institution as vital to culture as the NHS is to health you might think.
And then in her brief sojourn as Culture Secretary she sets in train events that would hasten the destruction of the BBC – or at the very least the universal availability that she so admires.
Is a public consultation the most appropriate way to examine whether evasion of the licence fee should be de-criminalised?
It almost certainly is not. Ask most people do they think it is a good idea to make people pay £154.50 by law to receive live broadcast television, fine those who do not pay and then imprison those who refuse to pay the fines and the answer would be clear – of course not.
It’s only when you get into rather complex arguments about what the money is used for in the public interest and what the consequences of decriminalisation would be that more subtle judgments - based on a lot of knowledge - have to be made.
Prime Minister Cameron got his approach right when five years ago he appointed a leading criminal barrister David Perry QC to assemble and analyse all the evidence. Perry concluded that criminal sanctions were overall in the public interest because evasion would rise if there were no practical consequences. He even debunked the oft-repeated canard that courts are clogged as a result – 0.3 per cent of total time.
Would the general populace voluntarily fund museums and the arts if given the choice and not part of general taxation?
The BBC has estimated de-criminalisation could cost £200 million a year but that could turn out to be an under-estimate.
If more and more people found out that paying the BBC licence fee was virtually a voluntary thing – in terms of consequences- who knows where the final destination would be.
The Baroness has hinted that perhaps the Government could provide some compensation for losses due to increased evasion. This would not work unless the amount was updated annually to take account of the latest levels of evasion and it just might be difficult to reach agreement with the Treasury, or whichever arm of government was responsible.
Therefore this is the worst possible time to decriminalise licence fee evasion as a unilateral act.
If the Government really wants to do this – and on the whole it is unwise and carries serious negative consequences – then it should be part of an overall look at the future of the licence fee and settlement for the post 2027 world.
The Government is already thinking aloud about alternatives to the licence fee and how the BBC should be funded in future and appears minded for radical change.
At stake will be the universal availability that Baroness Morgan appears to value but that is a story for another day.
If the Government were to push ahead with de-criminalisation of the licence fee now, without tying the issue into the overall funding of the BBC, it would be the strongest evidence yet that malice rather than rational analysis lies at the heart of their motivation.