Burns criticised the BBC for being too wedded to the £145.50 licence fee and said it had ignored alternative forms of funding such as subscription – or “conditional access” – because it could “get away with it”.
Burns was speaking after BBC director general Tony Hall outlined his vision for the future of the BBC, saying he had “real confidence in the licence fee. Whatever reform people come up with, they need to answer that question, is there a better way [of funding it] than that 40p a day? I don’t think there is.”
But Burns said political downward pressure on the level of the licence fee meant it was unsustainable in the long term. He said the BBC should begin to look at alternative methods of funding, beginning with the iPlayer.
“You can either say you can only watch the iPlayer if you have a licence fee, or you can watch the iPlayer without a licence fee if you pay some money,” said Burns, speaking at the Future of the Licence Fee event in London.
“This is the first big opportunity to move towards conditional access – no pay, no play – but they won’t even think about it because they think it is the first step towards subscription. They will not even think about it because they are so wedded to the licence fee.
“All the young people who are watching on their computers [without a licence fee] and don’t realise they are breaking the law, these are the first people who are showing us what is going to happen. The BBC have said they want the iPlayer to be at the centre of the future. Down the road, later in life, everything will be Internet based.”
The BBC has resisted any moves towards subscription, saying it would cost £500 million to implement and would lead to “first and second class” licence fee payers.
But Burns, who oversaw a review of the BBC’s governance a decade ago as an adviser to the then culture secretary Tessa Jowell, said: “The licence fee is effectively a tax … and I am very pessimistic about the ability of the BBC to fund itself long term through a tax. I think the political process is just too difficult.”