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Time to rethink the licence fee

The BBC's funding model may be unsustainable
The BBC's funding model may be unsustainable - Carl Court /Getty

The BBC licence fee is expected to increase by around 7 per cent next April. A few years ago that would have seemed extortionate but inflation has risen rapidly since the deal to index-link the payment was agreed after a two-year freeze at £159.

Faced with a £15 increase in what is an increasingly unpopular tax, Rishi Sunak has signalled his willingness to intervene to hold it down. It is now likely that the rise will be held to the September consumer price index rate of inflation of 6.7 per cent, rather than the higher 12-month average of about 10pc. That means the licence fee would rise by £10.65 to £169.65 per year.

But the real issue is not how much the fee should be going up but how long it can last. It is apparent to everyone that the way we consume our media has changed irrevocably. Newspapers are now read more online than in print and the industry has had to adapt to this reality.

But the BBC remains wedded to a funding model first set down almost 100 years ago, paid for through a licence fee levied on owners of television sets whether they watch the corporation’s output or not. This is enforced by law, with non-payers risking imprisonment. Yet television audiences are in free-fall as viewers flock to streaming channels.

The argument that the BBC provides good value for money with its TV and radio programming has merit but it fails to address the issue of choice: why should people pay through the licence fee for output they may not wish to see or hear?

How much longer the licence fee system of funding a state broadcaster can continue is the real debate to be had.

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