The Conservative MP tasked with scrutinising the BBC has said it is hard to justify enforcing the licence fee through the criminal courts, suggesting the corporation is losing support in its battle to prevent the decriminalisation of the £154.50 charge.
Julian Knight, the chair-elect of the Commons culture select committee, told the Guardian the sanctions on individuals who did not buy a television licence were increasingly out of date. “In 2020, when we’re looking at a world of populism, a world in which elites are being challenged an awful lot, the idea of criminal sanctions over the licence fee sticks in a lot of people’s throats.”
He said one option would be to turn non-payment into a civil offence with substantial fines, which would be “better than being carted off to court”, but he insisted he wanted to ensure the corporation’s income was not excessively affected by such a move.
The MP was elected as chair of the influential committee last month, replacing his predecessor, Damian Collins, who had focused its work on an investigation into Cambridge Analytica and online disinformation during the EU referendum. Knight, whose election was supported by many new Tory MPs concerned about the BBC’s London-centricity, said the MPs for Brexit-voting northern seats “want to have their voice heard” by the broadcaster.
Having previously said the BBC struggled to connect with Brexit-voting audiences, he insisted the corporation needed to listen to the public outside London and “reflect Britishness, rather than what they [at the BBC] perceive as Britishness”.
He said a key task of his committee would be to encourage broadcasters to focus on regional diversity, ensuring both the people and the attitudes of individuals outside London were reflected on the BBC.
Knight is likely to have significant influence over the BBC’s future as the corporation deals with the government’s consultation on decriminalisation of the licence fee, the appointment of a new director general, and a battle over the amount it can charge for the licence fee from 2022. There is also the wider question of how to fund the BBC in future, with Downing Street making clear it wants to curtail the power of the broadcaster.
Knight, a former BBC journalist who was a finance reporter at the Independent on Sunday until 2014, said he expected the committee would launch a review of the entire public service broadcasting sector. He suggested the priority was that Britons had access to high-quality public service material that “reflects the country”, rather than prioritising the BBC as the only source of such material – and questioning whether Channel 4 and Channel 5 deserved their special status as pubic service broadcasters.
Despite calls from some quarters for the BBC to become a Netflix-style subscription service, Knight said the idea of moving the corporation straight to a subscription service was “for the birds” given the technical challenges of putting still-popular television and radio channels behind a paywall. He also said he was concerned about the effect of changes to the licence fee on the wider media sector: “I think, to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that we have to really understand precisely how that impacts our economy.”
He said he personally believed the corporation should pick up the substantial cost of providing free licences to over-75s, even if that resulted in significant cuts to the corporation’s output.
“I would think, personally, that the BBC should be funding the over-75s licence fee even if they had to find the cash. However, a long-term solution needs to be found. This is not sustainable.”
Knight suggested there were too many people called Julian at the BBC: “When I used to work at BBC News, in meetings we’d have a copy of the Guardian and the Financial Times and that would be it. It’s quite a remain outlook on life, and I say that as a former remainer. I’d never met anyone else called Julian until I worked at the BBC and there were five others on my floor. It’s quite an experience to be on a floor full of Julians.”