The UK government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reiterated its intention to scrap the television licence fee and make viewers pay a subscription. In plans revealed to the Sunday Times, the Corporation could also be made to downsize and sell off most of its radio stations.
The plans would make the BBC to sell off the vast majority of its 61 radio stations but safeguard Radio 3 and Radio 4; reduce the number of the corporation’s national television channels from its current 10; scale back the BBC website and invest more in the World Service
Sir David Clementi, the BBC chairman, has spoken in defence of the licence fee, arguing that a move to a subscription model would mean a loss of earnings for the BBC that would lead to popular programmes being axed and that the introduction of Netflix-style payments could result in the loss of public service programming in a race to attract paying viewers.
Ministers are already consulting on plans to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee from 2022 and have suggested the compulsory levy could be scrapped by 2027, when the BBC’s charter is set for renewal.
Government sources insist they are not bluffing on the licence fee. “We are having a consultation and we will whack it they say. “It has to be a subscription model. They’ve got hundreds of radio stations, they’ve got all these TV stations and a massive website. The whole thing needs massive pruning back,” they assert, suggesting the BBC should have “a few TV stations, a couple of radio stations and massively curtailed online presence, putting more money and effort into the World Service, which is part of its core job”.
John Whittingdale, the former Culture Secretary, was reappointed as a Minister of State in his old department on February 14th with a brief to lead the reform plans.
Clementi is in post until 2021 and expected to stay long enough to appoint a new director-general to replace Lord (Tony) Hall. Johnson’s aides have suggested they will appoint a new chairman who will fire the new director-general if he or she is not to their taste.
Reaction, even among many Tory politicians, has been negative, one former cabinet minister said “this wasn’t in the manifesto and are we really going to fight the next election on scrapping Radio 2, a favourite of many of our voters?”