The Guardian view on the Tories and the BBC: a backlash sees off an immediate threat

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty</span>
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty

Nothing appears too valuable in British life that cannot be wrecked to save Boris Johnson’s premiership

On Sunday, Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, tweeted that the BBC licence fee will be abolished in 2027 and broadcaster’s funding frozen for the next two years. The licence fee is the guarantor of the BBC’s financial independence and underpins its unique quality. Doing away with the funding stream without warning and with no replacement in sight in advance of a mid-charter review revealed Ms Dorries’ true intentions. The backlash to her peremptory threat was enough for her to back down. It was hard not to believe the reason the BBC was being sacrificed was to distract attention away from accusations that the prime minister lied over illegal Downing Street parties. Nothing appears too valuable in British life that cannot be wrecked to save Boris Johnson’s premiership.

The BBC has not got off lightly: Ms Dorries confirmed she intends to keep the fee flat at £159 for a colour licence until April 2024, which will mean a severe real-terms cut to the corporation’s funding. The negotiations between Ms Dorries and the BBC to agree a settlement had not been conducted transparently or appropriately. This is ominous. The Tories have long used the BBC as a punchbag. But under Mr Johnson the “Brexit-Bashing Corporation” is key to drawing up cultural dividing lines rather than economic ones. The longer-term threat to get rid of the licence fee has not gone away. Linking the BBC’s mid-charter review, and implicitly the fate of the licence fee, with the “impartiality” of a broadcaster’s editorial output makes ministers sound more like tinpot tyrants than respectable democrats.

Ms Dorries’ defence is that she is cutting the cost of watching television in a cost-of-living crisis. This is not an unreasonable argument. But low inflation in the last decade did not mean a better deal for Auntie. Licence fee income has suffered a real terms cut of 30% since 2010. The BBC is the glue of the nation, bringing people together with its sports coverage and landmark dramas and documentaries. Dissolving those bonds is in no one’s interest apart from the BBC’s corporate rivals like Rupert Murdoch.

Defund Auntie and ministers also help to defund TV’s private sector, which relies on the BBC to commission shows. Cutbacks also don’t help the one in eight people who spend three hours a day watching the five major public sector broadcaster channels. The media analyst Claire Enders points out that despite public debate being dominated by the tastes of younger viewers, audience fragmentation and online subscription services, there are 8 million adults in the UK who lack the means, or do not wish, to pay for any TV service beyond the licence fee.

The central role the BBC plays in national life ensures a source of trusted news and information benefits from large audiences thanks to entertainment-driven schedules. The pandemic has reminded us of this social and political role in dramatic fashion. Much has been made of the rise of subscription services such as Netflix. The BBC might do very well under such a model, but it would not be the BBC as it exists today. Netflix has built its empire on $15.5bn of debt. Ministers’ are delusional to think the BBC could compete with a £700m borrowing facility.

Modern national polities are in part a creation of television, which is why governments decided to monopolise broadcasting at its outset. The Conservative party appears to want to cast society in the image of the market rather than the democratic state. Hence its death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to the BBC. There needs to be an independent and transparent process to set the level of the licence fee. Discussions over whether to replace the funding model and the BBC’s wider obligations cannot be decided by ministerial whim or implicitly by commercial rivals’ interests.

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