The lesser (and longer) decriminalisation story: avoiding the 'go to gaol' card

Lis Howell tours the horizon looking at how public (non-commercial) broadcasting is funded round the world to ask: how should we pay for the Beeb without getting a go-to-gaol card? Read the options and vote on the solution.

Lis Howell
24 March 2014


So in a year or two it will soon no longer be a criminal offence to watch “Strictly” in real time without a TV licence. All the talk is about decriminalisation and the poor old BBC has to find a way of making it work. Despite what the Times says, it’s hard to turn off the signal to the defaulters, and even harder to turn of the access to PCs and laptops. So the debate will have to go far beyond keeping the poor and feckless out of prison. Saving single mums from being slammed up might be a great campaign, but what the decriminalisation bandwagon has really done is drive a coach and horses through the BBC’s complacency about funding. As recently as February 26th Director General Tony Hall made a speech referring to ideas about alternative funding methods for the BBC as “abstract speculation and ideal schemes”. A bit dismissive – especially as now, everyone is thinking about it. Decriminalisation with its emphasis on sad poor people being locked up, makes us ask - who is paying the licence fee? You and me I hope. And who isn’t, but is getting away with it? 2% of households, that’s who! Criminalisation isn’t an issue for those people who watch catch up telly on their Ipads and get their news off their phones. But it is for sad people who can’t afford £145.50 a year. So decriminalisation is only the beginning of the undermining of the licence fee, and some would say, of the BBC.

For the time being the Government has called off the dogs (in the shape of Tory MP Andrew Bridgen and 151 other MPs) who called for decriminalisation. Now, Mr Bridgen has cooled down and wants to give the BBC a whole year to think of ways of making us pay the licence fee without the threat of going to gaol. But at the same time the BBC is caught in a Catch 22. It is promoting the Iplayer and also putting BBC 3 on the internet (where you can get it without being caught by detector vans) so in practice that means that the people who use these services needn’t pay. But the BBC desperately needs us to pay and threatens us in turn with losing TV for kiddies. Tony Hall has said that perhaps the BBC needs to look at ways of extending the licence fee to all devices – but how would they apply it? Detector vans chasing your tablet? The licence fee in the way it’s applied in the UK seems doomed and decriminalisation has just brought it to the forefront.

So what should be done about funding the Beeb, given that the licence fee in its present form will not survive??

This article you are reading has a bit of background, with some links to really good stuff on the subject (see Steve Hewlett, Media Guardian and David Elstein - who started the whole debate really and should get the credit – you heard it first on OurBeeb in 2011)

But what my article piece is really about is how the BBC can be funded in a digital age where as many as 2% of households legitimately get entertainment and news without live TV - while those poor little old ladies (under 75 though – don’t forget that!) who are watching “Songs of Praise” on an old fashioned set, get carted off to the clink because they forgot to pay.

Background (if you know all this go straight to the voting)

The BBC is paid for by the licence fee of £145.50p per annum levied on all households which have equipment to receive live TV broadcasts. The licence fee is not to pay for the BBC. It is to pay for the right to receive a live TV signal. The licence fee also pays for things you may never have thought of like the Welsh Channel S4C, the development of commercial local television, BBC World Service (formerly funded by the Foreign Office) and BBC Monitoring at Caversham which is an intelligence activity. Until 2010 Caversham was a government responsibility. It reports on mass media worldwide and has a number of overseas bureaux. But now the licence fee funds it.

Paying for these other things, which are not BBC programmes or development, is commonly known as ‘top-slicing’ because that is money sliced from the top of the licence fee, which the BBC does not get, but which it administers. The BBC is responsible for collecting the licence fee, it does this through a contract with the massive recruitment agency Capita which runs “TV Licensing’ on the BBC’s behalf.

If you don’t pay your licence fee this is detected by a van travelling the streets with equipment which can find a signal going into a house. If your household doesn’t have a TV licence, you can be prosecuted. It’s now legendary that one in ten criminal prosecutions in the UK is for non payment of the licence fee. There were 155,000 prosecutions and fines last year. They all got criminal records, and 48 people got banged up. Unlike your gas bill, where if you don’t pay you get cut off, or your road tax, where there is a mixture of civil and criminal sanctions, if you don’t pay the TV licence fee it’s a criminal offence and this is allegedly clogging up our courts with low-level and often fruitless prosecutions.

Everyone who is interested in this knows that the decriminalisation of this offence has been an overnight sensation with Tory MP Andrew Bridgen tabling an amendment to the Deregulation Bill. This by the way, is, a long and complicated piece of legislation supported by Ken Clarke and sponsored by Oliver Letwin, supposed to be about reducing red tape but now hi-jacked by the licence fee decriminalisation issue (well, that seems to have caught the press imagination more than household waste or the erection of gates, two other items in the bill.)

Other possibilities for funding public service broadcasting

23 countries in Europe use a form of licence fee funding to pay for a state broadcaster. Several other countries worldwide use the same basic system. In Europe the most expensive is Austria at 324 euros annually, the cheapest is Slovenia with 42 euros annually. The money is collected and administered in a variety of different ways:-

Government grants – the ABC in Australia is funded directly by the government from taxation, but the tax isn’t earmarked for broadcasting, the funds just come out of government income. The ABC is more susceptible to government interference, as shown in the crisis earlier this year when the Aussie establishment was outraged by ABC reports of illegal immigrants being injured on Australian navy ships.

Income tax – in Finland all adults pay income tax, part of which is earmarked for broadcasting and called the Ylei tax because it pays for Yleiradio the state broadcaster.

Subscription – this is only applied to PBS in Canada as far as I can see – and there only partially. It’s a system where some core services are provided free, subsidised by viewers subscribing to the big commercial-style BBC 1 style channels – in essence you pay for “Strictly” but get news and education for free.

Competitive funding – this idea was brought to new prominence in February by outgoing Ofcom chair Colette Bowe who said the licence fee should be collected and then shared by the Beeb with other broadcasters to promote "competition, dynamism and innovation" on a competitive basis. That means ITV and Channel Four would compete with the BBC to get a share of the licence fee.

The Canadian system :- this is a system of mixed revenue, including government funding via taxpayers, subscription fees, advertising revenue, and other revenue (e.g. real estate). It’s controversial though. See this piece.

The Danish system : – the digital licence fee which applies to all TVs, computers with Internet access, or with TV tuners or other devices that can receive broadcast TV. So you have to pay the TV licence if you have a new mobile phone. Not quite sure how this is collected…..

The German system : - a blanket contribution for all households payable regardless of equipment or television/radio usage. Germany currently has one of the largest total public broadcast budgets in the world.

The Greek system :- a licence fee which used to be paid through electricity bills. An often quoted joke in Greece is that even the dead pay the licence fee (since graveyards pay electricity bills). Not so funny since Greek state TV was closed down in June 2013.

Vote here! This is a very simple poll asking you how you would fund the BBC based on the snapshot definitions above. It’s a fun poll but it’s about time we all got involved in this debate.

 If you want to keep OurBeeb debating the BBC, please chip in what you can afford.

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