Dorries pulls back from threat to axe BBC licence fee
UK Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries yesterday appeared to soften her threat to abolish the BBC licence fee when she told MPs that there was a need for a debate about a new funding model.
Her comments followed a backlash from some quarters after she tweeted at the weekend that the next licence fee settlement “will be the last”.
It raised expectations that from 2028 an alternative means of financing the corporation would be put in place when the Charter is renewed.
But critics latched on to an absence of any firm new ideas, and Ms Dorries resisted repeating her abolition comment in the Commons.
Ms Dorries, who was admonished by Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, for tweeting policy positions before addressing parliament, was repeatedly asked to explain the government’s proposals.
“It’s not for me to decide until I have all the information,” she responded.
MPs asked if the BBC would be turned into a voluntary subscription service, to which Ms Dorries responded: “I haven’t mentioned a subscription service. I’ve said that we need to have a debate and discussion about how the BBC is funded.”
A Netflix-style model is favoured by some as an alternative but there is concern that without every home in the UK having a high-speed internet connection it would mean some households being denied access to the BBC.
Tory MP John Whittingdale, a former media minister, said: “I just don’t think we can turn off terrestrial transmission and everybody will get it through the internet.”
Another Tory MP and former Cabinet minister Damian Green, added: “One of the reasons we still have the licence fee is that, although it has all the obvious imperfections we all recognise, nobody’s come up with a better system that would guarantee we will continue to get everything from the BBC that people want and value.”
Cynics say the debate about the BBC was rushed into the public spotlight to detract attention from the controversy surrounding the parties at Downing Street and, as such, lacked any detail on what was being proposed, aside from a two-year freeze in the licence fee.
Tim Davie, the BBC director-general, and Richard Sharp, chairman, said the settlement would “necessitate tougher choices” over programming amid cuts of £1 billion over the next six years. The National Audit Office has noted that frontline programming and services are increasingly at risk.
He said this morning that the licence fee freeze will leave the corporation with a shortfall of £285m by 2027/28, with a direct impact on output. It amounts to about half of BBC2’s current annual budget.
“Inevitably, if you don’t have £285 million you will get less [fewer] services and programmes,” he said.
He added: “If we want a universal public service media organisation at the heart of our creative economy, which has served us incredibly well, we have to support a publicly backed and not fully commercialised BBC.”
Talk in media circles extend to questioning the future of BBC2 and BBC4, and creatives are worried about the impact on big-budget dramas.
Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, said: “The Culture Secretary’s hapless performance today on the future of the BBC had more holes than the cheese served at the Prime Minister’s lockdown breaking parties.
“It is clear that the Conservative Party’s vendetta against the BBC threatens local news services, jobs, the prosperity of our creative industries and a great British treasure that is the envy of the world.
“Nadine Dorries has made it clear she is ending BBC funding as we know it yet she offered not a single possible alternative. She is more interested in saving the Prime Minister’s skin after his lies and disintegrating leadership, rather than respecting a great British institution and securing its future.”
A number of BBC presenters have openly attacked the government’s position. News and sports presenter Dan Walker tweeted: “I am well aware that the BBC makes mistakes and needs to change but the media landscape would be much poorer without it.”