Culture minister Nadine Dorries told the Commons on Monday that the BBC’s funding would be frozen for the next two years, and confirmed that the “long-term” future of the current licence fee model was in doubt.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said the announcement – reportedly part of Downing Street’s ‘Operation Red Meat’ moves to please Conservative supporters – was designed “to stop the prime minister becoming dead meat”.
The Labour frontbencher accused Tory ministers of a “long-term vendetta” against the BBC, and said the attack was “a really obvious, pathetic distraction from a prime minister and a government who has run out of road”.
Ms Dorries told MPs that the BBC had asked for the fee to rise to over £180 by the end of the current settlement, but said it will instead be frozen at £159 until April 2024, before rising with inflation for the following four years.
On Sunday the culture secretary had tweeted that this year’s licence fee funding announcement – which takes the BBC up until the end of it current charter at the end of 2027 – “will be the last”.
However, in more subdued language in the Commons, she said the government would soon begin a review of the licence fee model, based on a mandatory TV licence for a household watching the BBC.
“It’s time to begin asking those serious questions about long-term funding of the BBC,” she said, adding she wanted a debate over “new ways of funding the BBC”.
Asked about her tweet referring to it being the “last” licence fee settlement, she said: “I cannot see a world ... in 2028, in which individual households are paying an outdated funding fee that was established in 1922.”
Asked by MPs what her own “instincts” were on the BBC’s funding model beyond 2027, she said: “My instincts are, let’s have the discussion.”
Ms Dorries also renewed her attack on the BBC’s editorial choices – demanding that the corporation addresses “issues around impartiality and group think”. The minister said the government wanted to make sure the broadcaster “commands support from the UK, not just the London bubble”.
Labour responded by saying the government’s decisions on the future of the BBC makes it look like a “tin-pot dictatorship” – suggesting Ms Dorries was trying to “destroy” the corporation.
Ms Powell told the Commons: “By explicitly linking the charter renewal to the BBC’s editorial decisions, the government sounds more like a tin-pot dictatorship than a healthy democracy.”
The Labour MP added: “[Ms Dorries] has been the first to throw up a distraction and finding someone else to blame for the prime minister’s disintegrating leadership: the BBC’s reporting, of course.”
Dismissing Ms Dorries’s claims the government want to help with the cost of living crisis, Ms Powell added: “It’s part of Operation Red Meat to save the prime minister from becoming dead meat.”
John Nicolson, the SNP’s Westminster spokesperson for culture, also accused the government of trying to “distract” from Partygate, adding: “The Tory right wants the broadcast media to be as sycophantic as most of the print press, offering fawning adulation to their leader.”
The Liberal Democrats’ culture spokesperson Jamie Stone MP said the “half-baked announcement was frankly embarrassing – this is a government in chaos, flailing out at any target it can find”.
Tory MP Damian Green, criticising Ms Dorries rhetorical attacks on the licence fee model, said: “Like many of the best things in this country, the BBC licence fee is something that may not work in theory, but works really well in practice.”
Tory MP Julian Knight, who chairs the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, said: “Speaking strictly personally, I welcome the freeze, and the overt commitment to weaning the BBC off the licence fee.” But Mr Knight also called for more details, including on the timetable.
BBC bosses branded the licence fee freeze “disappointing”, arguing it will lead to “tougher choices” that will impact on viewers.
In a message sent to staff earlier on Monday, BBC director-general Tim Davie and chairman Richard Sharp said they “welcomed” debate about the future of the licence fee, and wanted to engage “in a discussion about public service broadcasting in the UK and how best to fund it”.
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