Why we should halt the TV Licence fee consultation
Should we really be ploughing ahead with a public consultation on the future of the BBC licence fee when society is being reshaped by a pandemic, asks Ray Snoddy
The deadline is strict and runs out at 5pm today, Wednesday. It’s one not to be missed by any serious player in the media.
Of course there are other things going on and you are of course excused if you have failed to focus sufficiently until now.
Just in case you have missed it, the deadline is for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media, Sport and the Arts public consultation on the proposed decriminalisation of the BBC licence fee.
It’s hardly at the top of anyone’s agenda at the moment, except perhaps for the BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall. The UK has much more important things to worry about such as why in the fifth largest economy in the world there are still shortages of protective clothing for doctors and nurses, testing kits and essential ventilators for the seriously ill.
DCMS, the department for the fun times, is not directly responsible for any of the above, outside of general Cabinet responsibility.
So there they go in the middle of a pandemic that could reshape world society for a generation, ploughing ahead with a public consultation on whether or not to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee.
Decriminalisation is a thoroughly bad idea more appropriate to a pre-Covid-19 than a post-Covid world – but of that, more later.
The “consultation” - if it is anything more than a cover for an already agreed policy decision - should now be halted, symbolically before 5pm if possible. If that is a step too far the results should be tied up with a neat bow allowing the Department to get on with other matters.
The idea of the consultation was born unexpectedly during the final days of the general election campaign in December, almost an eternity ago.
It sprang from a sense of malice and vindictiveness against the BBC, mainly, but not exclusively, because Andrew Neil called Boris Johnson out as an untrustworthy liar and charlatan.
Much has changed since then, not least the fact that Prime Minister Johnson and his Svengali Dominic Cummings have both contracted coronavirus.
And in an unexpected, if inaccurate, swipe at Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, Johnson has admitted that there is such a thing as society.
Another material fact has come from a poll taken up by readers of Press Gazette, presumably mainly journalists, which found that the BBC is judged to have produced the best coverage of the pandemic crisis.
It is simply not good politics for Johnson to continue his petty attacks on the BBC and he has, on the whole, suspended hostilities.
Best now, at the very least, for the Government to suspend the consultation and allow another handful of experienced civil servants to get on with more pressing work - such as finding a way to help local newspapers survive the ongoing crisis.
The BBC has, after all, recently made a couple of significant concessions on the licence fee, reflecting the dangerous times we all face.
The implementation of licence fee charges for over 75s not receiving benefit has been suspended for now, as has been the more general operations against those unwilling, or more likely unable, to pay their licence at the moment.
The Government should respond by suspending the process of consulting on decriminalisation for the duration – however long that turns out to be.
There is a powerful argument that any process of decriminalisation should in fact be suspended for much longer than the course of the Covid-19 crisis.
The terms under which the BBC licence fee is charged and collected is an integral part of the entire financing of everything the BBC does.
It should not therefore be considered in isolation but as part of a much wider look at the function, structure and financing of the Corporation already scheduled for the next BBC Royal Charter.
Piecemeal tinkering is never the answer to any serious policy issue.
This is particularly true in a society-wide issue such as licence fee decriminalisation because it is impossible to predict what the outcome would be over time.
The BBC has argued that decriminalisation could cost £200 million a year, something that would, coming on top of the £250 million a year hit from the cost of the over 75s decision, inevitably hit programme investment.
The danger is that the BBC is wrong here, possibly seriously wrong. Once the word spreads, as spread it will, that it’s not an offence to forget to pay the licence fee, the number of freeloaders could spread exponentially. Why pay when you can have the BBC for nothing?
It would be completely impractical for the BBC to chase millions of citizens through the civil courts and equally impossible to count on Government promises to provide compensation. Any such scheme would be always running behind reality and would be subject to the Government turning off the tap at any time if someone dares to ask Johnson a tough question.
Whether it is a good idea or not, consideration of decriminalisation has to be part of an overall Royal Charter settlement.
For new readers, decriminalisation, which seems at a superficial glance perfectly reasonable, is in fact the exact opposite – a move that would over time inevitably destroy not just a national institution but more precisely a national public service broadcaster.
The argument in favour of having a national public service broadcaster – not least its apparently minor outposts such as local radio – is somewhat easier to make right now than it was in December.
Five years ago a detailed, independent study by the criminal barrister David Perry QC, found that a criminal sanction for those not paying the licence was, overall, in the public interest.
In the midst of this crisis is there anyone left out there who still thinks that Netflix or Apple TV is somehow the equivalent of a national public service broadcaster?
Other than reducing its use of bandwidth to ease internet congestion, little has been heard from Netflix on the coronavirus crisis. It does what it has always done - provide a decent service of films and dramas. No more, no less.
There are people who simply don’t like being told to do something, whether it is paying a compulsory licence fee or standing two metres apart from other shoppers in a queue.
They cannot be reached by reason and the fear is that many of them, who neither know nor care about the long-term implications of decriminalisation on our entire broadcasting sector, might show up in the DCMS consultation.
The Government may fail to do the statesmanlike thing and suspend the process before or after the deadline for submissions.
It is therefore important for media professionals who do understand the implications, and anyone who values having a national public service broadcaster, not just in a crisis but all times, to fill in the simple, brief questionnaire immediately.
Just in case.