Bill Carmichael: Don’t penalise the over-75s over free TV licence when it is the BBC that needs to reform

IF you are an older person and enjoy having a free TV licence, you might feel secure that you won’t have to pay the planned increase when the yearly fee rises to £154.50 on April 1.

Should the TV licence remain free for the over 75s?

But don’t be too sure – the BBC is 
after your pension money and says the free licences for the over-75s may be scrapped after the taxpayer subsidy that pays for them at present comes to an end in 2020.

Last November the Corporation launched a consultation on the free TV licences that comes to an end next week on February 12.

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The suggested options range from scrapping free licences all together, to offering a 50 per cent discount instead, limiting the free licences to the over-80s or introducing means testing so only the poor get a free licence.

Should the elderly be penalised if the BBC chooses to scrap free TV licences for the over 75s?

This, to put it mildly, is a bit of a cheek. The BBC agreed to take on the cost of free TV licences in a deal with the then Chancellor George Osborne in 2015 in return for inflation matching rises in the licence fee and the closure of a loophole that allowed people to watch iPlayer without a licence.

Now, having pocketed those benefits, the BBC is quibbling about the cost they agreed to take on. To match the mood of the moment, they are trying to re-open a negotiation that has already been concluded.

The BBC points to the high cost of free TV licences – £745m a year, or the equivalent of the total spending on BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the News Channel, CBeebies and CBBC.

They also argue that older people consume more BBC content than 
younger people and a lot of older people are comparatively well off – so why shouldn’t they be forced to pay for a licence?

But on the other side of the argument many pensioners are on fixed low incomes and value the companionship that television can offer in often isolated lives.

And I am not sure that the BBC has considered carefully enough the optics of this decision.

Already, about 180,000 people a year are charged with non-payment of the licence fee and they are overwhelmingly poor and 75 per cent are women.

About 90 people a year are jailed for failing to pay the resulting fines – all so virtue-signalling celebrities who continually boast how compassionate they are can enjoy their preposterously large salaries.

This will only get much worse if free licences are scrapped. Brace yourself for scenes of frail, poverty stricken grannies being dragged through the courts for refusing to contribute towards the £1.75m a year Gary Lineker gets for talking about football.

But this is merely tinkering at the margins – the far bigger issue facing the BBC is that its funding model – effectively a television tax – is outdated and unsustainable in the age of inter-connected, multi-platform, multi-device news and entertainment.

As that great BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman once said: “The idea of a tax on the ownership of a television belongs to the 50s. Why not tax people for owning a washing machine to fund the manufacture of Persil?”

And the real problem facing the 
BBC isn’t the old, but the young, who 
are abandoning the BBC in droves in favour of subscription services such 
as Netflix, Amazon Prime and 
Spotify, and free services such as YouTube.

The BBC’s own research shows that 16 to 24-year-olds spend more time on Netflix than with all of the BBC’s content together, including iPlayer.

Children aged five to 15 spend more time online than watching television 
and 82 per cent of them go to YouTube 
for content compared to 29 per cent 
who use iPlayer. They are more likely to watch content on phones, tablets and laptops, than on old-fashioned television sets.

Why? Well, one answer may be the cost. A basic Netflix subscription is about £72 a year – less than half the BBC licence fee.

I wish the BBC well – it produces some superb content and employs many excellent journalists. But it needs to come up with innovative solutions to fight off the big global beasts that are eating its lunch.

And I am not convinced that an archaic television tax – and squeezing money out of poor pensioners – is going to provide the answers.