Jayne Dowle: BBC’s bullying over licence fee could be its tragic end

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EXPECT no sympathy. Expect no escape. Expect insistent text messages to your mobile phone and a big man with a clipboard banging on your front door demanding money or goods. Expect to be marched to the cash-point and told to empty your bank account. I’m joking about the last bit, but only just. Forget to pay your TV licence and expect to be harassed, hassled and generally bullied into handing over the £145.50 annual fee.

The BBC’s heavy-handed approach to non-payment has attracted such a storm of criticism that MPs are considering changing the law to make it a non-criminal offence. As it stands, a person can actually be sent to prison if they refuse to pay up. Indeed, cases of people accused of licence fee evasion accounted for more than one in 10 of all criminal prosecutions last year. Around 155,000 individuals were convicted and faced either a heavy fine or jail. If I was a magistrate, I would be stood outside Broadcasting House with a placard begging for mercy.

However, there is a difference between those who wilfully refuse to pay, and those who simply slip up. Of course it’s not fair that some people pay and some people attempt to get away without doing so. However, there could be many reasons for non-payment; moving house, banks messing up direct debits, confusion over whether a licence is required for watching programmes online. Even actress Keira Knightley was hounded for that one. Unless it’s a persistent and wilful offence, the punishment is far too extreme for the extent of the so-called “crime”.

The Corporation comes down so hard because it relies on the millions it garners from the licence fee every year to pay for its programme-making. Bosses are concerned that removing the threat of a criminal record will lead to evasion rates going up and potential losses of £200m a year. It comes to something though when pensioners are worried about losing their liberty just so the BBC can afford to screen endless repeats of Cash in the Attic.

The intimidation, bullying and general desperation to squeeze cash out of the public does the BBC no favours. It causes resentment and leads to only one question. What do we get for our money? Is it right, in a world of multi-channel, multi-access entertainment, that we should be expected to hand over a fee to pay for a channel that we might not even watch? You can see where the moral dilemma comes in. It makes us wonder just what we are paying for.

The answer, for now at least, seems to be a new focus on arts programming. BBC director-general Tony Hall has announced a list of luvvies coming on board to bolster cultural coverage.

Collaborations are planned with Tate boss Sir Nicholas Serota, National Theatre head Sir Nicholas Hytner, the Globe Theatre and the Hay Festival of literature and the arts.

There’s a Northern Ballet version of Three Little Pigs for CBeebies, an animated film by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, and following the success of The Hollow Crown, three more Shakespeare adaptations. There’s even an art competition on The One Show, with the winner seeing their work on display at the Royal Academy. With the exception of The One Show’s questionable foray into the art world, that’s good news for some of us I suppose. If I didn’t like art or history or ballet though, I would be distinctly underwhelmed. Having my door banged down in order to demand money to pay for a load of actors and dancers to prance around in tights? I don’t think so.

For a public service broadcaster, the BBC has seriously lost touch with the public. It does itself no favours with its uncompromising stance on licence fee evasion. And it does itself no favours when it comes to accounting for the revenue our licence fee money raises. All this suggests is that a new funding model is needed desperately when the BBC’s Charter is up for renewal in 2017. What though? This is a question more pressing and difficult to answer than why anyone ever thought that watching people sewing would make interesting television.

Various options are mooted; carry on with the licence fee, but increase it to meet rising costs; develop what’s called “commercial activity” but could otherwise be read as “advertising”; seek voluntary subscription following the model of Sky and an as-yet hazy idea that the BBC operates on the model of department store John Lewis where staff “own” the company. In the BBC’s case, licence-fee payers would effectively buy a stake in the broadcaster.

Perhaps the most radical solution though comes from former BBC star Noel Edmonds. The Deal or No Deal host has a plan – for the BBC to be sold off to himself and a group of investors. The man who invented Mr Blobby in charge of the most august and venerable public service broadcasting service in the world? If this ends up being the best solution anyone can come up with, we can only conclude that the BBC will have brought it on itself.