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We need a fairer way of paying that's fit for 21st century

By Harry Fairhead

Published 08/03/2016

Across the UK license fee cases amount to one in 10 of the total in magistrates courts, but in Northern Ireland it has reached a staggering one in four cases
Across the UK license fee cases amount to one in 10 of the total in magistrates courts, but in Northern Ireland it has reached a staggering one in four cases

There are many who think it is time for reform of the BBC licence fee, and the inordinate amount of court time taken up by cases for non-payment is the prime reason.

Across the UK these amount to one in 10 cases in magistrates courts, but in Northern Ireland it has reached a staggering one in four cases.

The bureaucratic cost of such cases must be enormous - and there are undoubtedly better things you could do with this cash.

Besides, the licence fee is a very regressive tax, costing the richest and poorest families exactly the same.

While £145.50 per year may not sound like very much, that's a sizeable chunk of income if you don't have very much to spare.

It seems likely that this contributes to the high number of cases.

In an era where there are literally thousands of TV channels and numerous devices on which to watch them, the licence fee is increasingly anachronistic.

It is a system designed for the early 20th century when there was only one television channel and you certainly couldn't watch programmes on catch-up.

Moreover, the BBC's massive spending power and guaranteed revenues today make it very hard for other media outlets to compete and survive.

In 2015, a study took 48 households which were sceptical of the licence fee and denied them access to the BBC's services for just nine days.

By the end of the experiment, two-thirds of the households had changed their minds and decided the licence fee was worth paying in full.

For some, this was a vindication of the licence fee, but a more nuanced interpretation might be that the BBC could confidently move away from the archaic licence fee and consider other funding models such as subscription, just as millions of us choose which satellite or cable channels we want to pay for.

This won't happen overnight but with Charter renewal due shortly, a significant first step would be to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee and stop clogging up the courts system.

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