The TV licence fee is the “least worst” way of funding the BBC, a leading peer has insisted.
Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, said the fee is essential as the BBC is “the source that everybody turns to”.
Boris Johnson’s government has ramped up its assault on the BBC since the general election, including the launch of a consultation on whether to decriminalise non-payment of the £154.50 licence fee.
In a debate about the role of the BBC on Thursday, Lord McNally launched a broadside at the government, accusing it of “intimidatory” tactics against the corporation.
“There’s always been a kind of problem of a new government that comes in with a sense of triumphalism and score settling,” he said.
“The way this government has launched itself onto the BBC is very worrying indeed. It’s worth remembering the BBC is protected by Royal Charter just so to protect it from the day-to-day vindictiveness and intimidation of a government.”
He went on: “The licence fee is probably the least worst way of financing the BBC and should be protected from populist ways to weaken it.”
Lord McNally added that if the BBC’s independent values are lost, “Fox News here we come”.
Labour peer Lord Bragg, who works for Radio 4, told the chamber: “People in this country would march for the BBC because they know since the beginning, it has served them well.
“For almost 100 years they have paid for it with very little complaint. It is a public service, it belongs to them. We can’t let them down.”
Crossbench peer Viscount Colville of Culross, on the other hand, said the government “is right to question the BBC’s universal licence fee”.
He said: “It served the corporation well but it’s increasingly unable to fund the organisation properly. Thirty-three thousand fewer licences were purchased last year and the forecast is for the reduction to continue.
“I’m in favour of progressive household tax, as in Germany. It reflects the differing wealth of households and maintains the universality of the BBC’s funding.”
The corporation can fall back on the licence fee – which provides 75% of its revenue – until at least December 2027, when the current Royal Charter expires.
Number 10 has been openly hostile to the BBC, and Boris Johnson has said he was “certainly looking at” scrapping the licence fee.
Government ministers, meanwhile, have been banned from appearing on flagship BBC current affairs shows Today and Newsnight.