TV licence fee: The government’s campaign of cuts and political interference is destroying the BBC’s public service mission

By Media Reform Coalition / Tuesday December 5, 2023 Read More

The government’s recent statements on the BBC licence fee mark only the latest in a long series of political attacks on independent public media. Over the weekend the Prime Minister cheered the BBC’s drastic cuts to Newsnight, one of the Corporation’s few remaining programmes producing investigative journalism. The Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer then indicated the government may block an increase in the TV licence fee, claiming an inflation-linked rise of £15 would be too high for many households.

The reason behind this sudden focus on BBC funding couldn’t be clearer: to distract from the government’s failed economic policies, and to shift blame for the growing cost-of-living crisis onto the BBC. Right-wing media outlets have wasted no time in boosting the government’s anti-BBC campaign, with GB News, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph all reheating their usual commercially-motivated bluster against the licence fee.

Yet these attacks on the BBC serve a deeper, more insidious purpose. With renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter due in 2027, the government is laying the foundations for an all-out assault on the future of the BBC as a universal, publicly-funded public service broadcaster.

Further erosion of the BBC’s independence

This latest episode of direct political interference reminds BBC bosses that it is government ministers (and not licence fee payers) who hold the purse strings. After the 2015 election the Conservatives gleefully went to war with the BBC, scrapping government support for free over-75s TV licences and reforming BBC regulation to prop up its commercial rivals. Since 2019 the government has made clear its plans to scrap the licence fee entirely at the end of the current Charter period, and has revelled in its power to appoint party cronies at the heart of the BBC’s corporate structures. With another election due in the next year, the government still has plenty of opportunities to threaten and cajole the BBC if it doesn’t tread softly in its political coverage.

Death by a thousand cuts

Blocking an inflation-linked increase in the licence fee also completely undermines the BBC’s financial sustainability, and seriously hampers its ability to deliver the level and range of services that the public expects. For over a decade the BBC has been subjected to sustained cuts in its public funding:

  • In 2010 the annual licence fee was frozen at £145.50 for 6 years, resulting in a sustained real-terms cut in BBC income.
  • In 2016 the fee was frozen again for one year, rising with inflation from 2017 but without compensation for the inflation ‘gap’.
  • In 2022 the government again froze the fee at £159 for two years, initially then set to rise with CPI inflation from 2024 until 2028.
  • Throughout this period the government removed its funding for free over-75s licences, the World Service and the Welsh channel S4C, creating new costs on the BBC without providing additional funding support.

As a result the BBC’s public income has fallen by as much as 25% since 2010. Years of ‘efficiency savings’ have barely touched the sides, while cost inflations in the production sector (ranging from 9% to 35% across different genres) have created even greater pressure on BBC spending.

BBC News and BBC local radio are only the latest services to bear the brunt of squeezed finances, but they certainly won’t be the last. The most recent six-year deal agreed in 2022 was presented, even by the BBC-bashing then-Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, as giving the BBC the “certainty of funding” it needs to fulfil its public service mission. By reneging on this deal with a potentially below-inflation increase in the licence fee, the government will instead impose another real-terms cut to the BBC’s funding that will invariably lead to even more damaging reductions in core BBC services.

A fairer, progressive alternative

As long as power over the BBC’s funding is held exclusively by government ministers, this cycle of political interference and damaging cuts will drive the BBC to destruction. Licence fee payers are stuck in a lose-lose situation, facing both rising costs and worsening services, while government is free to hold the BBC to ransom for its own political gain.

We need radical reforms to restore trust in the BBC as a public institution, to enshrine the value of universal content provision as a public good, and to create a fairer and more independent public funding model.

Replacing the licence fee with a universal household levy, collected through council tax, would be one way of achieving this. Responsibility for setting the level of BBC funding must be taken out of government control and given instead to a new independent body, that would directly involve the public in its decision-making. This would re-emphasise the value of the BBC as a shared public good, rather than anachronistically linking its funding to live TV or certain services, and allow for payments to be calculated on a progressive basis – such as linking the levy to household income.

Reform of funding on its own is not enough to ‘fix’ the BBC. Decades of commercialisation, unaccountable decision-making, dependence on elite institutions and obsession with a Westminster consensus have isolated the BBC from the public it exists to serve. Yet a new model for financing public media is nonetheless essential to take the BBC’s funding out of the political cycle, to insulate it from the vested interests of its commercial rivals, and to put democratic ownership at the centre of how the BBC operates.