After weeks of UK government press briefings dripping poison on the BBC’s funding model, Boris Johnson appears ready to push ahead with plans that could weaken the corporation’s ability to collect its licence fee revenue. It means one of the prime minister’s first domestic policies since winning a thumping majority in last year’s general election is effectively a declaration of war on the BBC.
According to a report in the Financial Times, the government will next week launch a consultation on decriminalizing licence fee evasion, meaning people would not face a jail sentence if they refused to pay the £154.50 annual fee to access the BBC’s services across TV, radio and online. The government is concerned that the current system is unfair and disproportionate.
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It would mean revisiting an issue the government looked into only five years ago, when an independent review by David Perry QC said the system for dealing with licence fee evasion is “fair and proportionate,” as well as providing “good value for money.”
The BBC has previously warned that decriminalizing non-payment of the licence fee will mean it has £200M ($262M) less to spend on content, including TV shows like Dracula and His Dark Materials. In a statement responding to the prospect of a new consultation, the BBC said: “Of course we’ll respond to the consultation whenever it is published, but the Government has already commissioned a QC to take an in-depth look at this matter… Decriminalization could also mean the BBC has hundreds of millions of pounds less to spend on programs and services for audiences.”
The review comes at a perilous time for the BBC, with insiders and industry observers worried that the broadcaster is facing an existential crisis. As well as a hostile government, which is skeptical about the BBC’s funding model and unhappy with its coverage on Brexit, the broadcaster is dealing with a tsunami of disruption from U.S. streaming services and having to make savings £800M. Head of news and current affairs Fran Unsworth told staff this week that she can’t remember another time in her 40-year BBC career when the broadcaster has been so under threat from external forces.