Tory MP Philip Davies, who sits on the culture, media and sport select committee, has questioned why the BBC is resisting decriminalisation of the “outdated” licence fee. His intervention comes as culture secretary Oliver Dowden is expected to shortly confirm plans to decriminalise the licence fee, effectively making the BBC a subscription service. It follows outrage over the BBC reneging on its promise to maintain the licence fee free of charge for all over-75s and instead making the pensioner benefit means tested. It means that the elderly could face criminal prosecution with the possibility of going to prison for non-payment.
Between 2015 and 2018 91 people, disproportionately women from low income families, were jailed for non-payment.
Writing for the Express, Mr Davies said: “I am not in favour of people being compelled to pay for the licence fee, especially if they do not want to watch the BBC. I would like to see the BBC in the real world as a commercial broadcaster.
“It would be far better for the organisation in the long term.
“The BBC has a huge global brand recognition so if it could tap into subscribers around the world it could carry on functioning, likely with a far better income then now, and everyone would be happy. Those who want to access it and can and will pay, and no-one is forced to.”
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He went on: “How can it be a controversial point to say ‘if I don’t watch the BBC I don’t want to pay for it’.
“This seems like a statement of the obvious and yet it is so contentious for the liberal elite. It is abundantly clear that the Licence Fee has had its day and is losing public support. The BBC can fight the inevitable or it can embrace the truth and optimise revenues with more freedom for better journalism.
“After all, if the BBC and the licence fee are as popular as their proponents claim – the BBC has nothing to fear from a subscription system as presumably people will queue up around the block to pay for such a wonderful value for money broadcaster that everyone enjoys watching.”
He also warned that the BBC has been shown to stoop to sordid journalism of the sort it would criticise if a tabloid newspaper did something similar.
The MP said that the recent revelations over the way Princess Diana may have been dishonestly goaded into doing her controversial interview with the BBC has led many to question the status of the national broadcaster.
He said: “I was deeply concerned by the recent scandal surrounding Martin Bashir and his deeply dishonest methods of gaining an interview with Princess Diana. He manipulated a vulnerable woman and her fears with false information.
“Just imagine the outcry, especially from the BBC if this had been done by an organisation such as the Daily Express.
“The BBC would have been all over the story like a rash, and I have no doubt the Today programme would have segments about the dangers/lack of accountability of tabloid journalism.
“This is a really serious issue for the BBC and quite clearly drives a coach and horse through its claim that it is a ‘responsible public service broadcaster’ and somehow more special than every other media outlet.
“I am hopeful that the Parliamentary inquiry will bring the facts to light and punish those who were aware of this manipulation – especially as Bashir has since become BBC News’ Religion Editor.
“This inquiry should include recommendations and suggested reforms that this sort of sordid ‘journalism’ never happens again.”