BBC licence fee: Tory MPs warn No 10 against fight

Image copyright
Getty Images

Two senior Tory MPs have warned Downing Street not to pick a fight with the BBC amid reports it wants the broadcaster “massively pruned back”.

The Sunday Times suggested No 10 believed the current licence fee should be replaced by a subscription service and certain channels sold.

Former cabinet minister Damian Green said such a radical overhaul would amount to “cultural vandalism”.

“Destroying the BBC was not in our manifesto,” he wrote.

Huw Merriman, the MP for Bexhill and Battle who is chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC, warned No 10 “ramping up an unedifying vendetta” against the BBC, saying the corporation should “not be a target”.

“This is not a fight the BBC is picking nor a contest my party promised if we got elected,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph. “If the BBC ends up in decline, it will be the government which will be accused by the very people we will rely on for support at the next election.”

Ministers recently launched a consultation on whether non-payment of the licence fee should remain a criminal offence.

Many MPs say those who are unwilling or unable to pay the compulsory fee – which from April will rise by £3 to £157.50 a year – should not be prosecuted. The BBC has warned such a change could have a significant impact on its finances and potentially put some of its output at risk.

The Conservatives’ election victory has triggered a wider debate about how the BBC should be funded in future and whether the licence fee, which is protected in law until 2027 when the BBC’s current Royal Charter ends, is still the best model.

During the campaign Boris Johnson, who worked for the Daily Telegraph, Spectator and other titles during a 30-year career in journalism, said the licence fee looked outmoded and its abolition needed “looking at”.

The Sunday Times reported senior aides as saying the PM was “really strident” about the need for major changes at the BBC. It said there was support in No 10 for the broadcaster being downsized and to sell off the majority of its 61 national and local radio stations.

BBC chairman Sir David Clementi has warned that putting the broadcaster’s services behind a paywall would lessen its ability to “bring the country together”.

More than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for an end to “political attacks” on the BBC and for politicians to support the role the BBC “plays in independently holding the government to account”.

But other Conservatives said the BBC must “get its house in order” if it wanted to continue in its current form.

Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland select committee, said the broadcaster must immediately reverse its decision to remove free TV licence from millions of over-75s. from this June.

And Jonathan Gullis, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, described the licence fee as “outmoded” and said there were alternative models including funding services through advertising.

He told BBC Radio Stoke that while he was a big supporter of local radio, the taxpayer should “not necessarily have to fund it all”.

Speaking on Sunday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted that no decisions had been taken about the BBC’s long-term future and people should be “cautious” about unattributed comments in newspapers.

“It is simply not the case that there is some pre-ordained decision about the future funding of the BBC out there,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge show. “There is a long way to go on this and certainly no decisions – that is the point of a consultation.”

He said, the popularity of on-demand, subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime had changed the media landscape and the BBC had to adapt.

“We all want the BBC to be a success but everybody, including the BBC, recognises that in a changing world the BBC will have to change.”

Labour’s shadow culture secretary Tracy Brabin called on new Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, who was appointed in last week’s reshuffle, to “speak up for” public service broadcasting and ensure the BBC remained “fit for the future”.