Okay. I’ve sat and thought about it, and here is my conclusion:
The only people that decriminalising the licence fee actually helps is politicians who are voted for by people who will never actually not pay the licence fee.
A civil case is, as most people actually know underneath it all, a grossly inefficient way of dealing with it.
The criminal cases, on the other hand, are heard in batches, usually settled before it ever gets in front of a magistrate (and for those which do, the majority don’t show up anyway), and there’s a certain amount of latitude available in terms of penalty: the maximum fine or imprisonment is generally a last resort applied to those who are defiantly persistent about not paying. If it’s the ‘criminal record’ part of it which is problematic (and I can understand that argument—to an extent, though I don’t see anybody complaining driving an uninsured vehicle being criminal is terribly unfair), then adjust the way that people are deemed to have been rehabilitated from the offence and associated disclosure rules. Good luck with that.
Constitutionally, putting in place a system where an organisation which is exists through royal charter and collects a levy defined in law, but issues civil proceedings for non-payment is even weirder than a system where an organisation which is exists through royal charter and collects a levy defined in law.
But no, this isn’t anything about the fairness of anything. There are already people seizing upon the idea as a stepping stone to simply making the licence fee a subscription. This misses (perhaps wilfully) a really big part of the point of the BBC: the fact that the definition of licence fee payer is deliberately distinct (go and read the Charter if you haven’t already) from “people who pay the licence fee” is the other side of the coin whereby the BBC isn’t a state broadcaster. To put it another way, it’s a very purposeful middle-ground where the BBC is neither directly beholden to the state nor to the people with the money. The BBC provides services, across a variety of platforms, which are for everyone. Those services are funded by the subset of the households who receive broadcast television.
(And yes, I know that the BBC chases ratings, underserves some audiences, and unquestioningly toes the line of the government of the day from time to time. We are not perfect. But the solution is cannot possibly be to remove the very mechanism which makes it possible for the BBC to do any better—do that, and the BBC of today is the best-constructed that it could possibly be, and I don’t buy that for a second).
While, hypothetically, you could make things fairer by rolling it into general taxation, you’d have to both have a parliament who was extremely friendly to the idea, and so many strings attached to prevent future abuse (for example, requiring an absolute majority in both houses to undo it), that it’s so unlikely to happen as to be discountable.
And, of course, we’re far from the exception in the “licence fee nation” stakes. Plenty of other countries have had them. Some of them even struggled for years under voluntary collection schemes as have been proposed by some quarters before switching to the British model.
And certainly, IP distribution presents some challenges to the funding model, but as I’ve noted previously: the TV Licence didn’t begin life as a TV Licence, it began as a Radio Licence. It’s evolved over time and can do so again—we just need to be careful to not tie too closely the media to the output in doing so.