UK government, at odds with media, set to review BBC funding

LONDON (AP) – Britain’s government announced yesterday that it is considering a change in the way the BBC is funded that would hit the coffers of the nation’s public broadcaster.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative administration — which is increasingly at odds with the country’s news media — said it would hold a “public consultation” on whether to decriminalise non-payment of the annual levy that funds the BBC.

The BBC gets most of its money from the “licence fee” paid by every television-owning household, which currently stands at 154.50 pounds (USD202) a year. Failing to pay can result in a fine or, in rare cases, a prison sentence.

The government argues that “the broadcasting landscape has changed dramatically”, with the rise of Netflix and other streaming services — triggering a decline in traditional television viewing.

“As we move into an increasingly digital age, with more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, the time has come to think carefully about how we make sure the TV licence fee remains relevant in this changing media landscape,” Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said. “Many people consider it wrong that you can be imprisoned for not paying for your TV licence and that its enforcement punishes the vulnerable.”

The government noted that “decriminalisation of TV license fee evasion would have an impact on BBC funding”. It is not proposing any way to make up the gap.

The BBC said a government-commissioned review of its funding a few years ago had “found the current system to be the fairest and most effective”.

The BBC is Britain’s largest media organisation, producing news, sports and entertainment across multiple TV, radio and digital outlets.

Its size and public funding annoy private-sector rivals, who argue the broadcaster has an unfair advantage.

The relationship between Britain’s government and the media has become increasingly frosty since Johnson became prime minister last July. His office has restricted access for journalists to government ministers and advisers. Ministers have been barred from appearing on the BBC’s flagship morning radio programme, Today, because of its alleged anti-Conservative bias.

Last week some media outlets declined to broadcast a pre-recorded address to the nation by Johnson marking Britain’s departure from the European Union because the government refused to allow independent media outlets to film or photograph the statement.

An entrance to the headquarters of the publicly funded BBC in London. PHOTO: AP