Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reportedly backing the softer option of “reforming” the BBC, putting him at odds with his senior advisor, the conservative revolutionary Dominic Cummings, who is leading the charge for scrapping the mandatory TV tax in favour of a consumer-based subscription.
An ally of Mr Johnson told The Times that “the PM is not as gung ho on the licence fee as Dom,” adding: “With Dom it’s ideological — he believes the licence fee should be scrapped. With the PM it’s more reform than revolution.”
A Downing Street spokesman denied that there was a split in Number 10 and that current talks surrounding the BBC were focused on decriminalising the non-payment of the licence fee, which can currently result in up to a £1,000 fine, court attendance, and even imprisonment. In 2018, there were 121,000 convictions for licence fee evasion in England and Wales, with five people going to prison.
However, sources had revealed over the weekend that Boris’s government wants to scrap the licence fee, making the BBC earn its own money such as through a subscription service. A spokesman from Downing Street further backed off from the reported proposal, telling the i newspaper: “I would point you to what the Prime Minister has said on this before, which was, ‘At this stage we are not planning to get rid of all licence fees though I am certainly looking at it.'”
It is certain that the BBC cannot survive in its current form, with broadcasting watchdog Ofcom warning as much in October 2019 that with young viewers tuning out of the BBC, it will become increasingly difficult in coming years to justify the TV licence, which is mandatory for anyone watching live television whether they consume BBC material or not.
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This month, culture secretary Nicky Morgan said that the BBC could go the way of video and DVD rental outlet Blockbuster unless it evolves. On Monday, a report revealed that nearly 200,000 households had cancelled their TV licence in one year.
Former minister Robert Halfon MP has called for the question of how to fund the BBC to be sent back to the people, suggesting there should be a referendum on the future of the BBC, with the broadcaster’s charter set for renewal in 2027.
Mr Halfon said in comments reported by The Telegraph: “They say that we own the BBC but we have no role in it. This would be about a democratisation of the BBC. To coin a phrase, it’s time for viewers to take back control.”
The Education Committee chairman added that it was “absurd” to “put someone in prison because they haven’t paid a compulsory tax to watch TV”.
While reforming the BBC or scrapping the TV tax was not a core element of the Conservative Party’s December 2019 election manifesto, Mr Johnson raised the matter on the campaign trail using similar terms to Mr Halfon’s, saying: “How long can you justify a system whereby everybody who has a TV has to pay to fund a particular set of channels?”
Johnson’s apparent softening towards overhauling the broadcaster, which is increasingly accused of bias, appears to be another sign of the prime minister’s weakening on core conservative issues. In recent months, Johnson has announced massive public spending on the unpopular HS2 highspeed rail link; signed up Chinese firm Huawei to help build the country’s 5G network despite security concerns both within government and the Five Eyes; and made the Tories the party of climate change action.
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