BORIS WAR WITH BBC OVER TV LICENCE FEES
Plan to decriminalise those who do not pay
BORIS JOHNSON last night cranked up his offensive against the BBC with a proposal to end criminal penalties for viewers who do not pay the licence fee.
Relations with the broadcaster were strained to the limit during the election after concerns about the corporation’s coverage of the campaign.
Ministers confirmed that the Prime Minister has asked officials to look at decriminalising non-payment of the £154.50 charge.
But the BBC has warned it could leave a £200million black hole in its coffers, which would mean it had less to spend on programming.
Treasury minister Rishi Sunak said the proposal was “something that the Prime Minister has said we will look at and he’s instructed people to look at that”.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “The media
industry is changing, how people consume media is changing, and it’s of course right that we continue to look at those things over time.
“The BBC is an incredibly important national institution. It plays a very valuable role in our country, in our life and will always do that.
“I think that things like criminalisation of the fee is something discrete and specific that we can and should look at and we will do that in the first instance.”
Media commentators said the move could be the first step to scrapping the fee altogether.
A 2015 review looking at issuing penalties in a similar way to parking fines found decriminalisation could raise the risk of evasion.
But the courts system is straining under the number of prosecutions for non-payment.
Mr Sunak said the BBC’s funding settlement was “secure” until 2027, but did not commit to keeping the licence fee beyond that.
He said: “I’m not going to sit here and speculate about “things that are, at this point, eight years down the track”, but added: “At the moment the main thing to focus on is just the decriminalisation of the licence fee and everything else.”
Mr Johnson hinted in his election campaign that he was open to looking at scrapping the licence fee.
He said: “You have to ask yourself whether that approach to funding a media company still makes sense in the long term, given the way that other organisations manage to fund themselves.”
John Whittingdale, a licence fee critic, is being considered to replace Nicky Morgan as Culture Secretary. She has stood down as an MP.
He has previously held the post, which oversees the BBC, and also chaired the powerful Commons Culture Committee.
Mr Whittingdale has urged the BBC to “adapt” to the modern world and suggested “some sort of public service payment” or a much smaller licence fee, to cover services like news and children’s TV.
Defence minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan is also tipped for the job. The licence fee generated £3.6billion for the BBC in the last financial year, around 75 per cent of its revenues.
A BBC spokesman said: “The Government has already commissioned a QC to take an indepth look at this matter and he found that ‘the current system of criminal deterrence and prosecution should be maintained’ and that it is fair and value for money to licence fee payers.
“The review also found that non-payment cases accounted for ‘a minute fraction’ – only 0.3 per cent – of court time. “Decriminalisation could also mean we have at least £200million less to spend on programmes and services our audiences love.” The overhaul threat comes amid anger at the BBC’s election coverage and claims it is a “Remain bubble”. BBC presenter Andrew Neil used a prime-time slot to attack Mr Johnson for failing to appear on his programme.
But ex-BBC editor David Elstein warned against a “sense of entitlement” and “generalised hostility” to politicians.
Former BBC and ITV chairman Lord Grade said Mr Neil’s monologue was “‘pretty close to the edge” of broadcasting rules. No 10 sources said the corporation “speaks to a pro-Remain metropolitan bubble in Islington, not the real world represented by Wakefield and Workington”.
The BBC is also under fire for axing free licences for over-75s next year – an issue the Daily Express has campaigned over.
The BBC has said the concession will be available only to households where someone receives Pension Credit from June 2020.
Majority man... jubilant Boris Johnson reacts to poll news. Inset, Culture Secretary favourite John Whittingdale
Rishi Sunak: ‘We can and should look at criminalised fee’
Ecstatic Mr Johnson and girlfriend Carrie Symonds, above, watch the UK map turn blue, hugs from Cabinet members, right, and thumbs up at campaign headquarters, below