Should the licence fee be scrapped?

Arif Durrani and David Benady on the mooted decriminalisation of non-payment and what it could mean for TV.

The robust health of British TV was clear for all to see at the Royal Television Society conference last week, when more than 300 executives partook in some collective naval-gazing.

The Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, reminded us the TV industry generated more than £12 billion in revenues last year. Commercial broadcasters now enjoy more than £5 billion in advertising and sponsorship revenues, while international sales of programmes are pushing the £1 billion mark – nearly three times the amount in 2008.

While Javid was quick to praise the vital cultural and social role played by TV and a public service broadcast sector he called "the envy of the world", he was armed with some questions about the way the BBC is funded.

"£145.50 is a lot of money for most people to find each year," Javid said. "The hard-working families who fund the BBC are still finding savings wherever they can."

He contrasted this with overstaffing at the organisation, adding: "I believe more can and must be done to make the BBC more efficient."

Javid went on to drop the (admittedly well-trailed in the press) bombshell that the Government would look at decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee. He claimed that almost 200,000 people "ended up in court accused of not buying a TV licence" each year, accounting for more than 10 per cent of magistrates’ court cases – a figure that was quickly disputed in some quarters.

The BBC’s strategy director, James Purnell, points to research that calculates that removing criminal sanctions for licence fee non-payment could result in £200 million in lost revenues each year and would necessitate savage cuts across the organisation.

It does not take a giant leap to foresee this as the start of a process that reduces the licence fee, forces the BBC to seek alternative forms of funding – and, ultimately, leads to the licence fee being axed altogether.

In a media-fragmented world, this will be music to the ears of proponents of a free-market approach.

That said, Auntie still enjoys respect and affection even among its most vocal rivals.

So, is the licence fee coming to an end?

Take part using our poll below...


NO Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive, WPP

"The BBC funding mechanism may at times lead to excess and excessive bureaucracy, but a publicly funded broadcaster provides a counterbalance to the commercial sector, keeps it on its toes and is therefore to be welcomed."


YES David Elstein, former chief executive, Channel 5

"The licence fee should be replaced by voluntary subscription. This would provide a more flexible financing mechanism, get rid of issues such as evasion and remove the power of governments to determine the BBC’s income."


NO Amol Rajan, editor, The Independent

"There is astonishing waste at the BBC, which ought to have infinitely more budgetary discipline than it does. That said, it is the most precious cultural institution in Britain: central to our history and essential to our future. Just use it better."


YES Philip Davies, MP

"Given the huge range of channels, it is anachronistic to have a licence fee – backed by the criminal law – for one provider. I believe people should be able to choose whether or not they wish to subscribe to a BBC licence fee."