BBC not under ‘attack’, says Culture Secretary

Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan has denied launching an “attack on the BBC” as she confirmed a “detailed look at the future of the TV licence model itself”.

The Government has launched a consultation on decriminalising licence fee evasion.

Speaking in central London, Baroness Morgan said “the licence fee will remain in place” for the Charter period ending in December 2027.

“However,” she added, “we must all be open minded about the future of the licence fee beyond this point”.

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Baroness Nicky Morgan
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Baroness Nicky Morgan (Paul Ellis/PA)

She hit back at suggestions that the moves could be seen as an effort to suppress the BBC, which hit controversy during the election.

“I don’t think anyone should interpret today’s announcement or discussion about the licence fee…  as any kind of attack on the BBC,” she said, calling it a “cherished British institution”.

It is important to “understand the ways in which the BBC is funded”, she said, and there should be “more transparency about funding”.

Baroness Morgan added: “Anybody who’s been campaigning in recent years standing on doorsteps will know there is more and more talk about, ‘Why do I pay the licence fee, what do I get for it?'”

It was “the Government’s duty to shine a light” on funding issues, she said.

She said the “pace” of change in the broadcasting industry “is fast and it’s only going to get faster,” adding that “public service broadcasting is too important to allow it to become a historical relic like Blockbuster”.

People will be asked for their views on whether criminal sanctions for the non-payment of the licence fee should be replaced by an alternative enforcement scheme.

Blockbuster collapsed into administration in 2013
Blockbuster collapsed into administration in 2013 (Tim Ireland/PA)

Baroness Morgan also announced a flexible payment scheme for the TV licence, which will allow “vulnerable people, including those over the age of 75” to split the bill into instalments.

From June this year, the current scheme of all over-75s receiving free TV licences will be restricted to those who claim pension credit.

The move towards allowing flexible payments has been criticised by Age UK’s charity director Caroline Abrahams, who said that the new payment scheme will not necessarily help those who find it difficult to afford a licence.

She said: “If you are a pensioner in the position of struggling to pay an extra £157.50 a year for a licence, being able to spread out your payments will not change the fact that the sum is simply unaffordable on your low fixed income.”

In 2018, more than 121,000 people were convicted and sentenced for licence fee evasion and issued with an average fine of £176.

Last year there were about 26 million active TV licences in the UK, generating an income of £3.69 billion for the BBC.

Baroness Morgan said change in the industry and young people’s viewing habits “should be an eye opener for the BBC”

But a spokeswoman for the broadcaster said: “The BBC tried to set up a Netflix service a decade ago while they were still sending DVDs in the post, but was prevented from doing so by regulators.

“There is a danger that politicians catastrophise the situation.

“The BBC is the most-used media organisation in the UK. It reaches the most people.

“It’s used for the most time. You wouldn’t think that from some of the things being said today.”

John Whittingdale, former secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), said it could be considered unfair to prosecute people for not paying the licence fee when there is no way to “switch off” the BBC.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “The question is whether or not it is right that someone who perhaps can’t afford to pay the licence fee could possibly face a criminal conviction, rather than have it enforced through the same means as many other charges.”

John Whittingdale
Mr Whittingdale served under David Cameron (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Mr Whittingdale, who served as a minister in David Cameron’s government, denied the debate over the licence fee was anything to do with the Government’s current stand-off with the corporation over allegations of bias.

“The reason the Government is looking at decriminalisation in the long-term funding of the BBC is nothing to do with its political coverage, it is because the broadcasting world is changing so rapidly,” he said.

Any move to decriminalise licence fee evasion will not come into effect until April 2022, according to the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport.

The BBC said any proposals to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee should be considered at the time of the settlement.

“A detailed Government-commissioned review found the current system to be the fairest and most effective.

“It did not recommend change, in part because the current system is effective in ensuring payment with very few people ever going to prison,” the BBC said.

In 2018, five people in England and Wales went to prison for not paying fines and “there is a question about what issue this repeat consultation is trying to solve”.

Any changes “must be fair to law-abiding licence fee payers and delivered in a way that doesn’t fundamentally undermine the BBC’s ability to deliver the services they love”, the broadcaster added.

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