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Replace licence fee with ‘TV tax’ whether you watch or not, says TV boss

The licence fee should be replaced with a “TV tax” paid by households regardless of whether they watch television or not, the former ITV chairman has said.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, the leading TV executive behind hit shows including Big Brother, also backed calls for wealthier people to pay a higher amount.

His ideas for reforming the “regressive” TV licence fee, which is increasing to nearly £170 this year, come as a Government review examines alternatives to the charge.

Calls to make the flat-rate fee, which funds the BBC, more progressive are gathering momentum. Last week former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke told i the licence fee was “anachronistic” and that people on benefits should get free licences, financed by wealthier people paying more. Labour said it will consider proposals to make the licence fee fairer.

Sir Peter, the former head of production giant Endemol, said the licence fee itself should be replaced with a new system requiring everyone to pay a monthly charge to support public service broadcasting, whether they watch TV or not.

Channel 4, which has been forced to cut programme commissions due to an advertising slump, could receive public money under the proposal, he suggested.

Sir Peter, who next month joins Mr Dyke for a YouTube debate How do we pay for the BBC after 2027?, said Britain should adopt the German system which makes all citizens, businesses and public bodies, including schools and hospitals, pay 18.36 euros (£15.60) a month to fund public service TV and radio channels.

Disabled people and benefits claimants are exempted from paying the fee.

“I think it’s a no-brainer to introduce here,” Sir Peter said. “It does break the link between watching the BBC and paying for a TV licence but I think that is legitimate.

“I pay for hospitals I don’t use and I’m happy to do so as a citizen. It’s a contribution to civil society and companies should do it too for broadcasting.”

The money would support the BBC but other public service broadcasters, including Channel 4, could bid for pots of the cash.

“It’s certainly a possibility that some of the funds could go to Channel 4 in the future,” said Sir Peter, a former Channel 4 board member. “Channel 4 is particularly vulnerable to advertising downturns and we need to see how much of what’s happening now is cyclical or structural.”

Channel 4 is expected to announce job cuts of up to 200 roles, including programme commissioners.

An insider told i: “Channel 4 is wholly commercially funded and has been proudly self-sustaining for more than 40 years. There’s no plan to seek any public subsidy.”

Channel 4 added that “public service media that delivers high-quality, safe and trusted content, that’s relevant to British people’s lives and experiences, is more important than ever”.

A graduated licence fee, with the wealthier paying more, could be combined with the introduction of the German system, obligating all elements of society to make a contribution. Most households could pay less over time, once businesses are contributing, whilst the BBC would get a secure level of funding, he believes. An independent panel would set the level of the fee, taking the decision out of the hands of politicians.

Sir Peter told i: “The licence fee is regressive and the idea of a graduated tax is gaining popularity. [Former BBC Chairman] Richard Sharp was in favour of it too.

“You could reduce the amount that millions of basic rate taxpayers pay. The question is how much would you ask top-rate payers to pay? Is two or three times the new £169.50 level too much?”

Sir Peter, who brought Big Brother to Britain and backed hits including Ready Steady Cook, said alternatives to the TV licence such as voluntary subscription or advertising would not allow the BBC to perform its vital public role.

“We choose as a nation to have a compulsory tax to support a media organisation whose remit is independently to hold politicians to account. Public service broadcasting is essential for our liberal democracy, our culture and the boost it gives to the creative economy.”

But ITV’s acclaimed Mr Bates Vs The Post Office drama showed that the BBC did not have a monopoly on producing important public-service television, he said.

Sir Peter, an influential voice in Government and co-chair of the Creative Industries Council with Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer, said questions about whether he would have a role in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) inquiry into the licence fee were “hypothetical”.

The BBC said: “We welcome the debate on whether the licence fee needs to evolve for the future, so that the BBC can continue to thrive and deliver for audiences in the UK and around the world.”

The DCMS said it would not prejudge the findings of the review.

How do we pay for the BBC after 2027? debate and book launch is on February 13 at 6pm.

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