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As we have long argued (here, here, here and here), the BBC licence fee ought to be decriminalised and the Corporation should then become a subscription service.
It’s a matter of practicality, given the absurdity of licence fee prosecutions making up 10 per cent of cases brought before magistrates, as well as one of the inevitable march of technology. The licence fee is an archaic poll tax on owning a television, holding out in an age of tailored subscriptions and micro-payment.
After a welcome campaign by Andrew Bridgen MP, the Commons has today voted in favour of an amendment to the Deregulation Bill which would explore how best to decriminalise the BBC’s funding model.
BBC management have totally failed to address the issues at hand. Instead they bluster that the licence fee is hugely popular and simultaneously argue that if it was decriminalised then large numbers of people would refuse to pay it.
As I noted on Saturday, the idea of a subscription service comes from them, rather ironically. It was they who suggested the only practical way of enforcing a decriminalised licence would be to switch off the service for those who don’t pay.
It seems they meant it as an illustration of how unpalatable this approach would be. If so, the plan backfired – because the proposal makes perfect sense. If you don’t pay for your newspaper subscription, it stops arriving. If you don’t pay your internet bill then the supplier cuts it off. If you don’t pay for your Sky or Virgin channels, the same happens. Why should the BBC be any different?
The new bluster coming from the Corporation’s bloated management is that a shift to subscription would be astronomically expensive. Their current estimate is £500 million. There are good reasons to doubt the accuracy of that figure, not least that the cost of digital switchover of the entire TV sector proved to be far less than that predicted by its critics.
Even if the estimate is accurate, it would be worth it. The very same BBC blogpost claims that decriminalisation would cost £200 million in lost revenue. By their own numbers, then, a £500 million subscription service would recoup its costs swiftly.
MPs made the right decision today, and as a result we could see the licence fee decriminalised by next year. A subscription service BBC should follow soon after.