Tory Minister warns BBC to change or prepare for licence fee ‘cut’

Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps says recent scandals have opened up a ‘question of credibility’ around the public service broadcaster

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The Independent Online

A senior Tory minister has threatened the BBC with losing the licence fee if it does not change its “culture” of unaccountability and win back the public’s trust.

Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party Chairman and minister without portfolio, told the Sunday Telegraph that there were “lots of different ways” the public could receive public service broadcasting in exchange for a licence fee which, at £145.50 each year from every household with a TV, he described as “quite a lot to pay”.

 The BBC’s royal charter comes up for renewal in 2016, and Mr Shapps suggested that the corporation needed to be subject to the same scrutiny as other public bodies or risk having its £3.6 billion income from the fee cut – or split with other organisations.

He said that the recent scandals involving high-profile BBC presenters and pay-offs for senior executives had raised a “question of credibility” over decisions at all levels of the corporation.

Speaking in an in-depth interview with the Sunday Telegraph published today, Mr Shapps made clear his party’s frustrations with recent editorial decisions made by the broadcaster. He singled out a particular piece by Mark Easton, the BBC’s home editor, about a European Commission report on immigration ¬– describing it as simply “wrong”.

He said: “They have ended up working in this culture which is buried in the last century, which is ‘we are the BBC, we do what we like, we don't have to be too accountable.’”

“But they are raising £3.6 billion through the licence fee, which is a tax, and, quite rightly, the public wants to have sight of how the money is spent. Things like the pay-offs have really caused concern, as have, obviously, things like Savile and Hall and the culture that goes around that. I think it is one of too much secrecy.”

Mr Shapps indicated that his party was prepared to look into ways of changing the licence fee system if the BBC is not able to reform.

“People pay their licence fee in this country because people believe that we should have public service broadcast programming,” he said. “Of course, there are lots of different ways you could do that.

“I would also say that £145.50 is quite a lot to pay for everyone in the country who has a TV. It is too much if we don't see the kind of reforms that all public organisations are used to that the BBC isn't having to engage with as much as it could do.”

The MP for Welwyn Hatfield in Hertfordshire said the BBC’s accounts book should be opened up fully to scrutiny from the National Audit Office, that it should publish all expenses above £500 – including its biggest stars’ salaries – and that it should be opened up to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

“In order for the public to have confidence in the three-and-a-half billion (pounds) plus that is given to the BBC - compulsorily, just because you have a television - and to move beyond Savile and the pay-offs and all the rest of it, the only way they can do that is to really go for a much more transparent, open deliberate policy.

“If they do that they can make sure they win back public trust. If they don't, they are in danger of frittering away Auntie's public trust that has been built over a long time.”

A spokesman for the BBC said: “Mr Shapps is right that transparency is key to the future of the BBC. So is its freedom from political pressure.”

He defended the corporation’s openness to public scrutiny and feedback, and said the BBC dealt with more than 1,600 FOI requests in 2012.

“We are proud of the quality of our news and its commitment to reporting without bias. Where we believe or are shown to have erred we correct and apologise.

He added that the BBC was “satisfied that our coverage of the European Commission report was fair, balanced and impartial”.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show this morning, the shadow Culture Secretary Harriet Harman said that it was “absolutely wrong” for Mr Shapps to be speaking out now ahead of the Royal Charter review.

“He's the chair of the Conservative Party and this has not come from the Culture Secretary Maria Miller and I'm sure she wouldn't be doing that.

“The Conservatives are trying to blame the BBC for the fact that they are having to report that the Government is actually not succeeding in so many ways.

“But actually it is still a massively important organisation and the Government should be supporting it.”

The former BBC director general Greg Dyke told Andrew Marr that the comments were “predictable”, coming just 18 months before a general election.

“It's an attempt to intimidate the BBC, which is what governments do, and it's the BBC's job to resist.

“Two or three things have happened that have been pretty unpleasant for the BBC, but that doesn't mean the whole of what the BBC stands for should be threatened.”