The Tories have launched war on the BBC with a threat that the government wants to have “a detailed look at TV licence fee itself”.
In a speech Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan announced a “consultation” on whether failure to pay the licence fee should remain a criminal offence.
Decriminalising the licence fee has long been seen by senior Tories as the first step in picking apart the BBC’s entire funding model.
In a speech to the Policy Exchange thinktank, Baroness Morgan said that decriminalising the licence fee “will almost certainly have an impact on BBC funding”.
She said the government should look at the laws underpinning Public Service Broadcasters which largely dates from 2003. And she warned the BBC could become an outdated relic like the Blockbuster video chain in the age of Netflix unless it moves with the times.
Public service broadcasting “business models, including the BBC’s, must adapt,” she said.
The BBC is seen as “a beacon of British values” around the world, she said. But the “media landscape has moved on.”
She added: “The time has come to think carefully about how we make sure the TV licence fee remains relevant in this changing media landscape,” Many people consider it wrong that you can be imprisoned for not paying.”
The government will ask the public whether the non-payment of the £154.50 annual BBC licence fee should stop being a criminal offence, as crunch funding talks with the broadcaster near.
In 2018, more than 121,000 people were convicted and sentenced for licence fee evasion and issued with an average fine of £176.
But Baroness Morgan insisted that the announcement should not be seen “as an attack on the BBC”.
The broadcaster is an “incredibly important organisation in the UK and around the world”, she said. But it was the Government’s “duty” to look into the issue of funding.
The BBC defended the current system and said a government-commissioned review had already found it to be effective and did not recommend change.
“There is a question about what issue this repeat consultation is trying to solve,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
“If there are changes, they 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.”
She 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.
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.”
The BBC has previously said it cannot afford to take on the financial burden from the Government.
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.
Wednesday’s announcement comes just over two weeks since the BBC’s Director General Tony Hall announced he would be stepping down to allow his successor to lead negotiations with the government over a financing model for the broadcaster.
A mid-point charter review is due in 2022 and renewal in 2027.
Hall’s successor will have to fight for the future of the organisation and its funding model, which some critics say is outdated in the era of subscription services such as Netflix.
With everything from news broadcasts and shipping forecasts to sci-fi dramas such as “Doctor Who” and natural history documentaries pioneered by David Attenborough, the BBC has shaped British culture for almost a century and is seen as one of the country’s key levers of soft power.
But in recent years, the Beeb, has come under criticism for awarding extravagant salaries to its stars, paying some women less than men and for what some politicians say is a London-centric bias.
The BBC has also faced accusations of political bias from the government, the opposition Labour Party and Scottish nationalists which it has rebuffed.