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Ministers Accused of Waging ‘Culture War’ on BBC Amid Licence Review and More Cuts

The BBC will have to make £90m of cuts on top of its current £400m annual funding gap – while its entire funding model could be ripped up.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with Conservative-appointed BBC Director-General Tim Davie in 2022. Photo: Jacob King/PA/Alamy

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The Government has been accused of taking an ideological axe to the BBC, as it launches a review into its funding model and forces more cuts on the public service broadcaster. 

From April, the BBC licence fee is set to rise by £10.50 a year, rather than the expected £14.50. Its £169.50 cost will give it licence fee income of £3.8bn a year. But with the Government relying on a lower inflation figure for the fee increase than the cost rise the corporation has faced, the BBC will be left with a funding gap of £90m it has said. 

These cuts follow a two-year funding freeze from former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries in 2022. BBC executives said that would produce a £400m funding gap by 2027, Press Gazette reported. The BBC is currently making huge cuts to investigative programming like Newsnight, turning it instead into a political discussion show. 

The cost of a digital-only Daily Mail subscription is £156 a year. Combining it with a Netflix subscription of £132 a year – roughly mirroring some of the news and entertainment functions of the BBC (though without any TV or radio coverage) – would come to £288. 

Local radio has borne the brunt of the cuts over the past two years, triggering strikes and departures from a wave of experienced local journalists and presenters.  

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The Government has also announced a review of the BBC’s funding model to ensure “fairness and sustainability”. But there are fears over who will steer the review, given the vociferous opposition the BBC receives from the right-wing press. 

The Tory minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, told the Lords on Tuesday: “The review [of the licence fee] will be led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and supported by an expert panel. It will assess a range of options for funding the BBC.”

“The next steps of the funding review will include appointing an expert panel, engaging with interested parties and commissioning research. The review will aim to report to the Secretary of State by next autumn.”

He added that due to “commercial sensitivities”, the findings of the review would remain confidential until it has concluded. 

Lord Parkinson promised that the review panel would “incorporate a broad range of views.” But it will be ministers who decide on the panel’s membership. 

Lib Dem peer Baroness Bonham-Carter also hit out at the review being launched with no public consultation, and concluding in the space of a few months: “Who will be on the expert panel and how will they be chosen? These Benches have long proposed that the funding process, as well as the appointment of the BBC chair, should be taken out of Government control and handed to a genuinely independent body.”

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She quoted BBC legend David Attenborough as saying: “The basic principle of public service broadcasting is profoundly important. If we lose that we really lose a very valuable thing.”

Crossbench peer Lord Birt mocked the current Secretary of State Lucy Frazer’s claim that the BBC “needs to live in the real world” and that “we can’t keep putting prices up for the licence fee”.

Lord Birt said: “What is actually happening in the real world? In the last three years, while the licence fee has been frozen, the price of Netflix has risen by 50%, Disney+ by 83%, Apple TV by 40%, and spending on the NHS, excluding Covid costs, has risen in the same period by around 12%. 

“In the period 2010-20, the BBC had to cut spending by 30%. After two years flat, there is a further drop in real terms of something like 12%. Against that backdrop, frankly, this new settlement will be but a drop in the ocean.”

The current long-term licence fee agreement ends in 2027. Last year, Mail on Sunday quoted an ally of then-culture secretary Nadine Dorries as saying it “will be the last BBC licence fee negotiation ever.” She pledged a “mid-term review to replace the charter with a new funding formula”, which appears to be what the current Government is continuing. 

“It’s over for the BBC as they know it,” the Dorries ally was reported as saying. 

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Lord Birt said it was time to “name the game”: “The BBC is a victim of the culture wars and, as a result, we are witnessing the long, slow, painful, diminution of this great institution.”

And Lord Wallace noted that in France, Germany and the Netherlands, public broadcasters are directly publicly-funded. The US has an almost entirely privatised domestic press, triggering, with the peer noting the “destructive impact that has had on maintaining a national dialogue at the centre of democratic politics in the US.” “Instead, it encourages culture wars,” he said. 

The Lib Dem peer pointed to “powerful commercial interests” in this UK – “the Murdoch press more than anything else” which would support fully privatising or disbanding the BBC. “It is not at all clear that all members of the Conservative Government are still committed to the principle of public service broadcasting,” he said. 

Another Lib Dem peer, Lord Foster, said he was in “despair” at the way the Government “praises the BBC and yet constantly undermines it.” He urged ministers to commit to public funding of the BBC in its review. 

A Lords Select Committee looked at BBC funding models and rejected a straightforward advertising funding model on the grounds that it would not provide enough funding for the BBC, and would damage other public service broadcasters as there is only a limited market for broadcast advertising. 

The minister, Lord Parkinson, dodged the question and failed to commit to continued public funding, saying only: “We want to ensure that the BBC has a sustainable income, but also that the sources of that are fair. I have already pointed to the declining number of people who are paying for a licence fee and the declining number who watch television live.”

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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.

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