Major shake-up coming to TV licence fee? Labour Culture Secretary's bold vision to make BBC more accountable

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Labour MP Lisa Nandy with a stock image of the front of the BBC building in London on the right

Lisa Nandy, Labour Member of Parliament for Wigan, has stepped-up to become the Culture Secretary for Prime Minister Keir Starmer. Ms Nandy has previously outlined dramatic reform for the £169.50 fee that would make the national broadcaster more account to licence fee payers

PRESS ASSOCIATION | GBN
Aaron Brown

By Aaron Brown


Published: 09/07/2024

- 03:50

Updated: 09/07/2024

- 09:15

An article by Lisa Nandy could hint at the direction the new Labour administration will take

  • Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, named Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
  • Appointment came after Thangam Debbonaire lost her seat
  • Ms Nandy has previously spoken about plans to make BBC more accountable
  • Licence fee payers would be stakeholders in the national broadcasters
  • It would end one-way transaction of the annual £169.50 fee
  • Current charter will end during this Parliament

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The arrival of a new Government brings with it a brand-new cabinet of Labour MPs and peers. One of the key appointments made by Prime Minister Keir Starmer is naming Lisa Nandy as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. In her new role, Ms Nandy is set to oversee a review of the TV licence fee.


Rishi Sunak's Government resolved to keep the licence fee in place — with an increase of £10.50, which raised the total to £169.50 following a two-year freeze — until the current charter period ends in late 2027.

With the next General Election not due until 2029, the Labour MP for Wigan will likely decide what happens next with BBC during a pivotal moment in its history. The 44-year-old politician will be presented with a report with recommendations on the future of the licence fee by an expert panel convened by the last Tory Government.

The report is due to be published sometime in the autumn.

Looking ahead to what could be in the works from the new Culture Secretary, it's worth turning to previous comments from the Labour MP. Writing for the website LabourList back in 2020, Lisa Nandy proposed to make the BBC more accountable to those funding it — the members of the public who pay their licence fee.

The Member of Parliament suggested a new model where the BBC is "owned and directed by licence fee holders," changing the relationship between the public broadcaster and its audience. The annual £169.50 fee wouldn't just pay for the upkeep of linear channels, live radio, and iPlayer, but would also make viewers stakeholders in the BBC.

Under the proposal, licence fee payers would have a say in major BBC decisions — addressing a common criticism that the annual fee is a one-way transaction, with limited accountability to those who fund it.

keir starmer stands in front of a podium in downing street for a press conference

Prime Minister Keir Starmer appointed Wigan MP Lisa Nandy to the position after Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debbonaire failed to secure her seat

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According to the article by Ms Nandy, a new model where the BBC is "owned and directed by licence fee holders" would be an improvement and ensure the broadcaster is accountable to its funders — the public who pay the licence fee — and not just to the Government of the day.

"To maintain the BBC as an institution, it must be accountable to those who fund it – the British people. Instead of tokenistic consultation with the people who pay for it, and backroom negotiations with the government, the BBC should move to a model of being owned and directed by licence fee holders – who can help decide the trade-offs that the BBC must make to secure its future," wrote Lisa Nandy in the four-year-old LabourList article. "This will mean a new structure for the BBC board that focuses on genuine public representation and participation – and greater commitments to transparency.

"This will support greater independence from the government, and protection from the Trump-like assault on free and open media that this government wants to pursue.

"It is time for all of us to be more forceful in supporting a free and open media. Because if we don’t fight for it, we will lose it and we will all be damaged as a result."

Now the Wigan MP is in a position to implement such radical changes, it'll be interesting to see whether her views have changed in the intervening years. It's worth noting that such dramatic reform would face challenges.

people walking outside of the BBC headquarters in London

Under the proposals sketched out by Lisa Nandy four years ago, licence fee payers would have a say in major BBC decisions — addressing a common criticism that the annual fee is a one-way transaction, with limited accountability to those who fund it

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Juggling the opinions of millions of licence fee payers across the UK, maintaining editorial independence, planning for the long-term health of the business, and meeting the requirements of a public broadcaster would be no small feat for the BBC. Dozens of new processes would need to be put in place.

With viewing habits shifting dramatically in recent years, with millions now choosing to watch content on-demand instead of tuning-in to linear channels, alternative funding models for the TV licence fee, including a premium subscription like Netflix, levy on broadband bills to reflect where the majority of viewing takes place, and advertising in certain categories, like BBC podcasts, have all been proposed in recent years.

Everyone TV — the organisation behind Freeview and Freesat backed by the UK's biggest broadcasters, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 — launched a new free-to-air platform in the UK earlier this year, known as Freely. Unlike Freeview and Freesat, this all-new proposition streams linear channels and on-demand boxsets over a wired or wireless internet connection.

This is similar to solutions like Sky Glass, Sky Stream, Virgin Media Stream, and the rebooted EE TV launched last year. Relying on a broadband connection means you'll be able to position your television anywhere in your house with a decent Wi-Fi signal — not where the aerial comes into the wall.

Campaigners have warned the UK Government that failure to protect traditional aerial television, like Freeview, could leave millions unable to watch the content their licence fee has paid to produce.

Lisa Nandy's mother, Luise Nandy, was a TV producer best known for the former, long-running news review show What The Papers Say and the studio debate programme Gloves Off back in 2000.

The Labour Party has committed in its manifesto that it will work “constructively with the BBC and our other public service broadcasters”, making culture and the arts more accessible and investing in the creative industry as part of its industrial strategy.

Wigan MP Ms Nandy previously weighed into a controversy surrounding former BBC chairman Richard Sharp, when questions emerged about the former Goldman Sachs banker’s role in then-prime minister Boris Johnson getting an £800,000 loan guarantee.

She said Mr Sharp made “significant errors of judgment” and his position was “increasingly untenable”, when asked if he should resign by the BBC. Mr Sharp stepped down following a report into the matter and was then replaced by Samir Shah, who had been a production company Juniper TV chief executive.

Thangam Debbonaire had been shadow culture secretary before the UK went to the polls, but she lost her Bristol Central seat to Green party co-leader Carla Denyer, one of the few Labour casualties on election night.

When Prime Minister Starmer announced the appointment of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ms Nandy said she was “thrilled".

“Its industries give meaning to millions of lives and bring communities in our towns, villages and cities together,” she said in a statement. “As Culture Secretary, I will do everything I can to harness the limitless potential of the extraordinary people in these amazing sectors to drive economic growth, unlock opportunities for everyone and change lives for the better. The hard work begins today.”

Under UK law, every household is required to have a valid TV licence to watch or record live television. This £169.50 fee doesn't just cover programmes on the BBC but applies to live broadcasts on ITV, Channel 4, Sky TV, Virgin Media, and all other channels in the TV Guide.

You've always needed to be covered by a TV licence to catch up on previously aired shows and films on BBC iPlayer. However, watching on-demand content from streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, and Prime Video was exempt. But that's all about to change.

That's because these streamers are increasingly branching out into live broadcasts.

a poster for the jake paul vs mike tyson live netflix event

Teasing the fight, Netflix says: "A ringside seat (on your couch) awaits. For the first time ever, Netflix and Most Valuable Promotions (MVP) are teaming up for a heavyweight boxing mega-event headlined by the Problem Child, Jake “El Gallo” Paul, versus the Baddest Man on the Planet, Mike Tyson."

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Netflix broadcast a stand-up show from Chris Rock called Selective Outrage back in March 2023 to subscribers across the globe — its first foray into live events. Another comedy special, John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in LA, will be broadcast on the platform in the coming months.

But the US streamer is looking to up the ante in November, when it will exclusively broadcast a boxing match between YouTube superstar Jake Paul and heavyweight champion Mike Tyson from the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Originally scheduled for July, the hotly-anticipated fight was pushed back after Tyson experienced an ulcer flare-up and was forced to pause training on doctor’s orders.

Some 80,000 fans will watch the brawl in the venue, with a potential audience of 260 million paid subscribers streaming from anywhere on the planet. A rematch between fighters Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano, also set to be shown exclusively on Netflix, will be held on the same day.

Since this is a live broadcast, the TV licence exception no longer applies.

As such, Netflix viewers — as well as those who tune in to other streamers who dabble in live events — will need to spend £169.50 on the licence fee.

A spokesperson for the BBC told GB News: "A TV Licence is needed to watch live content on streaming services, watch or record a TV programme on any channel and when using BBC iPlayer. Further information is available on the TV Licensing website or via the customer services team, who can help with any queries."

The loophole was first spotted by the team at telly-centric blog CordBusters. Crucially, those who only watch on-demand shows and films on streaming services will not need to be covered by a TV licence.

Netflix isn't alone, with a number of streamers now experimenting with live broadcasts. Prime Video has aired Premier League fixtures to its fans, who can watch with a standalone £5.99 subscription or as part of an annual Prime membership, as well as coverage of the ATP Tour, WTA Tour, and European Open.

Meanwhile, Disney+ streamed Elon John's farewell concert, Elton John Live: Farewell from Dodger Stadium, on November 20, 2023 — the 47th anniversary of his 1975 performance at the Los Angeles ballpark. Apple TV+ has secured the rights to all football matches in the Major League Soccer 2024 season too, marking its continued push into live sports coverage.

netflix logo pictured next to bbc iplayer on a samsung smart tv

You'll need to be covered by a licence fee to watch any live broadcasts in the UK, including boxing matches broadcast on streamers like Netflix, the BBC has confirmed

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Given that so many of these streaming services previously only offered on-demand content — and were therefore exempt from the TV licence — their changing schedules and the ramifications for licence fee payers will likely catch some viewers off-guard. Many (outdated) online guides claim that viewers who stream exclusively from ITVX, Channel 4, Netflix, Prime Video, and Disney+ do not need to pay the £169.50 fee.

Crucially, whether you need a TV licence fee is never determined by the device you're using to watch a programme. It applies to traditional TVs, as well as desktop computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets, games consoles, set-top boxes like Sky Stream, and or DVD/VHS recorders.

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According to BBC data, the total income from the licence fee last year was £3.74 billion, which accounted for about 65% of the BBC's total income of £5.73 billion. The TV licence fee was frozen for two years between 2022 and 2023. At the time, the UK Government hailed the announcement as giving "broadcaster certainty while protecting the public from price hikes".

If you're caught watching live TV without a TV licence, then you may be fined £1,000 or be taken to court. The maximum fine is £2,000 in Guernsey.

In 2022, there were 40,220 convictions for licence fee evasion, resulting in an average fine of £202.

According to TV Licensing annual 2022/23 review, a total of 90% of UK households who were required to hold a valid TV licence had one. In that same period, 73,000 people were caught watching live TV without a licence and £137 million was spent collecting the necessary fees.

It's a common misconception that you can be sent to prison for licence fee evasion. However, you can be imprisoned for failing to pay the fine for not having a valid TV licence.

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