UK to consult on decriminalizing BBC license fee evasion

Costas Pitas

LONDON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - The British government will ask the public whether the non-payment of the 154.50-pound ($198) annual BBC license fee on television-watching households should stop being a criminal offense, as crunch funding talks with the broadcaster near.

Anyone who installs or uses a television or watches the BBC's streaming and catchup service iPlayer must pay the charge or else they are guilty of a criminal offense, resulting in a fine of as much as 1,000 pounds.

Failure to pay can lead to a criminal conviction and a jail term.

"As we move into an increasingly digital age... the time has come to think carefully about how we make sure the TV license fee remains relevant," said culture minister Nicky Morgan.

"Today we are launching a public consultation to make sure we have a fair and proportionate approach to license fee penalties and payments, that protects those most in need in society," she added.

The BBC defended the current system and said a government-commissioned review had already found it to be effective and did not recommend change.

"There is a question about what issue this repeat consultation is trying to solve," the broadcaster said in a statement.

"If there are changes, they must be fair to law abiding license fee payers and delivered in a way that doesnt fundamentally undermine the BBCs ability to deliver the services they love."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson raised the issue just a few days before the Dec. 12 general election which he went onto win with a large majority.

Wednesday's announcement comes just over two weeks since the BBC's Director General Tony Hall announced he would be stepping down to allow his successor to lead negotiations with the government over a financing model for the broadcaster.

A mid-point charter review is due in 2022 and renewal in 2027.

Hall's successor will have to fight for the future of the organization and its funding model, which some critics say is outdated in the era of subscription services such as Netflix.

With everything from news broadcasts and shipping forecasts to sci-fi dramas such as "Doctor Who" and natural history documentaries pioneered by David Attenborough, the BBC has shaped British culture for almost a century and is seen as one of the country's key levers of soft power.

But in recent years, the Beeb, as it is known in Britain, has come under criticism for awarding extravagant salaries to its stars, paying some women less than men and for what some politicians say is a London-centric bias.

The BBC has also faced accusations of political bias from the government, the opposition Labour Party and Scottish nationalists which it has rebuffed.

(Reporting by Costas Pitas)