The future of UK public broadcaster the BBC has again come into question after the British government admitted it was considering whether to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee that supports the organisation.
Speaking to BBC Radio, justice secretary Robert Buckland said that his ruling Conservative party had discussed the “decriminalisation of failing to pay the TV licence.”
It currently is a criminal offence to watch live TV or use the BBC’s iPlayer catch-up service without a valid TV licence in the UK, punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 ($1,300) plus court costs.
The licence, which costs households £154.50 per-year, was cited by the secretary as a point of concern for people during campaigning for the general election, which takes place on Thursday.
Buckland added: “Is it right to criminalise and target a vulnerable section of society for what really is an issue of civil liability?”
He said that the government “would consult on that to work out whether criminalisation is the right way to approach this issue.”
Buckland’s comments echo those of Conservative leader Boris Johnson, who the day prior questioned whether the BBC should continue to be funded by the annual fee.
Johnson said: “At this stage we are not planning to get rid of all TV licence fees, although I am certainly looking at it. You have to ask yourself whether that kind of approach to funding a TV, a media organisation makes sense in the long term, given the way other organisations manage to fund themselves.”
The BBC’s public service broadcasting income for 2018/19 was a little more than £4bn, with 90% of that coming from the licence fee.
The BBC has continued to argue that the licence fee as its primary source of income enables it to remain editorially independent.
A spokesperson from the BBC said: “As we’ve said before, the licence fee ensures a universal BBC which serves everyone, is the most popular funding system among the public, and is agreed as the method of funding the BBC for another eight years.”
In recent times, the government has been increasingly in conflict with the broadcaster over its funding and editorial direction. The BBC’s decision to withdraw free licence fees for over-75s was met with criticism from figures inside the government, though the broadcaster pointed out that it had been forced to shoulder the cost of the benefit as part of a wider funding settlement.
As recently as this month, Johnson has been at loggerheads with the broadcaster over his ongoing refusal to be interviewed by Andrew Neil.