Belfast Telegraph

BBC needs to pull plug on its crude and criminalising licence fee funding model

Auntie seeking to imprison people for not having a TV licence is so patently unjust that, in other circumstances, Panorama or Spotlight would be fighting to expose it, says Malachi O'Doherty.

If the BBC licence fee system delivers a predictable number of people into our jails very year, as it does, then that is a worry for the people who devised or defend the system itself.

It's certainly not what they want; that a 10th of all criminal convictions in Northern Ireland should follow from failure to pay. They would rather that everyone did pay, that the threat of legal action would keep everyone in line. But it doesn't.

And, as a mechanism for fundraising, the licensing system's failures to raise money impose inordinate expense on other institutions and on the taxpayer.

For who is paying to imprison the defaulters but the taxpayer? And that taxpayer has a right to ask if the BBC shouldn't be looking for alternatives to claims on the public purse to discipline a system that doesn't work as well as it should.

I believe in public service broadcasting. I believe in the BBC.

I also broadly believed in the licensing system without reservation... until I heard the statistics unearthed by the Belfast Telegraph concerning the scale of prosecution of defaulters.

I don't know how else to fund a broadcaster which is governed by regulation, doesn't advertise and is at arm's-length from the influence of Government.

Granted, there are times when the arm looks disconcertingly short and stiff, but it is elastic and long compared to the style of management of the media in some countries.

I believe that the quality of our democracy depends on the BBC and on healthy journalism.

And it is plain that in countries without a public service broadcaster of this prominence and standard, the public debate on political issues suffers.

An impoverished level of political argument brings clowns and scoundrels to power. I would take some convincing that there isn't a connection between the rise of Donald Trump in the USA and flatlining of political intelligence in the broadcast media there.

The Irish system isn't bad, with high-quality investigative journalism and debate on RTE, but it feels strange to have your news brought to you by yogurt and milk producers.

It works for the print media, but only when it is diverse. We should know the whole cost of the system that supports our BBC. And part of that cost is people going to jail for not paying the fines imposed on them for their refusal or inability to pay.

To be fair, there is little excuse for most of us not being able to find £145 a year for the TV licence. Few are so poor that that is out of reach for them. Yet some are.

We live in an age of food banks and zero-hours contracts, of cuts in welfare payments and housing benefit, so more people are living on the margins. They live also with the knowledge they are bearing the burden of a Government bailout of bankers who over-extended themselves gambling. So, they suffer not only the poverty of their circumstances, but a deep sense of injustice.

Still, the BBC isn't a charity and is entitled to its money. And how is to get it if it cannot use the weight of the law to demand it? That's the big question.

The first level of farce in this is that a fine of £1,000 for not being able to pay a licence fee of £145.50 is hardly going to get paid, either. Those who can't afford the smaller sum certainly can't afford the larger one.

The next level of farce is that putting someone in jail for not paying the fine costs more than the fine itself would cover. It costs more than £35,000 a year to keep someone in jail, somewhere around £800 per day.

If the Government paid the licence fee for those defaulters, it would be saving money. The argument against that is that the penalty deters other likely defaulters.

Maybe it does. Maybe it would make more sense to write off bad debts and spread the burden among those who can afford it. Unfair, of course, but possibly much cheaper all-round than imprisoning defaulters.

The next level of farce is that jailing people for not paying their licence fee clogs up the prison system. The Belfast Telegraph disclosed this week that a quarter of all criminal prosecutions are for failure to pay the fine imposed for not paying the licence fee. This is madness.

Every time you hear an argument for expansion of the prisons and for more money to be poured into policing and crime prevention, just remember that a huge saving could be made for a start by the expedient of telling the BBC to raise its money in some other way... or to stop pursuing those who can't pay.

The next time a politician comes canvassing to your door and promises to get more prisons built, say you've got a cheaper idea: stop imprisoning people for not paying the TV licence fee.

We are not used to thinking of the BBC as a voracious institution. Its brand character is homely and respected. It is called Auntie. Auntie sits in the corner in all our homes. Yet, as the Belfast Telegraph reveals today, this BBC sends out up to 3,500 letters every working day to households in Northern Ireland, reminding us to buy a TV licence and reminding us of the £1,000 fine if we don't. Around 2.3 million letters were posted in the last three years.

The mass mailouts cost the BBC almost £500,000 - equivalent to 3,400 licence fees, even though only a small minority among us dodge the £145.50 charge.

And, true, some put the letter behind the clock to think about it later, or bin it straight away, expecting never to get caught out.

And some marshal arguments against the need to pay since they only watch other channels. And haven't they got a point?

Some put it off because they can't afford it this week. And then they can't afford it next week, either.

It should not be beyond the imagination of the BBC and others to devise better means, if not for funding the corporation, then at least for managing those who can't - or won't - pay, whether through denial of service or other constraints.

There is something horribly Victorian about the idea that the prison system should be the back-up for the debt collector.

It's such a stark anomaly that, in other circumstances, you might expect Panorama or Spotlight to highlight the crudeness and the injustice of it.

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