Tories would slash licence fee

As charter comes up for renewal, remit of BBC is set to be election battleground, says Heather Tomlinson
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The Independent Online

The Conservative Party is drawing up a policy to transform the remit of the BBC and scale back its commercial activities and quest for ratings.

At the same time, leading opposition politicians are pressing for an independent committee to oversee the forthcoming renewal of the BBC's charter, following its bitter row with the Government over the David Kelly affair.

The renewal process will set the BBC's operating conditions between 2006 and 2015, how much it gets from the TV licence fee (currently £2.7bn a year) and the way it uses it.

The shadow Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, told The Independent on Sunday that the Conservative Party would be proposing radical change for the BBC in its manifesto for the next election.

On behalf of the Tories, David Elstein, the former chief executive of Channel 5, is reviewing the funding options for the BBC and will produce a report by the end of the year. Mr Whittingdale said a detailed policy would follow, but he indicated the radical changes that are intended, including a large cut in the licence fee.

"I believe there need to be significant changes to the role of the BBC to reflect the modern age, and I think it's very difficult to continue to justify a licence fee. The world has changed and people have access to many different channels." He said a publicly financed channel should concentrate on public service broadcasting rather than shows such as Fame Academy. "What the BBC must not do is chase ratings," he added.

Should Labour win the next election, other politicians are seeking safeguards for the charter renewal process. Lord McNally of Blackpool has written to media minister Lord McIntosh of Haringey to press him for an independent oversight of the process. This view is supported by Conservative MP Andrew Lansley. Both politicians were on the independent committee led by Lord Puttnam that scrutinised the recently passed Communications Bill, whose work the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, said was "particularly valuable".

"It's certainly common gossip that ministers see the charter renewal as payback time for the BBC," explained Lord McNally. "There can't be much confidence that the Government is an impartial arbiter of the exercise. What's needed is a new and transparent way of undertaking the charter review.

"I think the Puttnam committee has a lot of public confidence vested in it. One of the most simple things to do would be to reconvene the Puttnam committee.

"I think the argument now is simply overwhelming," he added. "The idea that the BBC's [charter renewal] can be done behind closed doors with a Government that has had such a deep and bitter feud with the BBC - just doesn't stand up."