By Marcus Barnett
NUMBER 10 denied wanting to scrap “all licence fees” today as Tory MPs rebelled over Boris Johnson’s “vendetta” against the BBC.
Tory backbenchers lashed out at the Prime Minister after threats to downsize the public broadcaster and make it a subscription-based service were reported in The Sunday Times.
Damian Green, once effectively deputy prime minister to Theresa May, said that “destroying the BBC” wasn’t included in the Conservative election manifesto and that implementation of the suggestions would be “cultural vandalism.”
His colleague Huw Merriman, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the BBC, also said that proposals for a subscription-based BBC are “bizarre.”
In a Daily Telegraph column, Mr Merriman appeared to point the blame at the PM’s strategist Dominic Cummings, saying that “it feels as if senior government aides are now ramping up an unedifying vendetta against this much-admired corporation.”
A third Tory MP, Damian Collins, also said: “No surprise that no-one has put their name to this destructive idea.
“This would smash the BBC and turn it from being a universal broadcaster to one that would just work for its subscribers. The biggest losers would be the UK’s nations and regions.”
A Downing Street spokesman today said the PM does not want to scrap “all licence fees” at this stage, but that he is “certainly looking into it.”
Ministers have chosen to boycott the BBC’s Today programme over the past several weeks, while debate over the future of the licence fee has been encouraged by the Tory leadership, aware that anger at the BBC over its hostile coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could blunt opposition to attacks on the corporation.
Figures close to Number 10 stoked the confrontation over the weekend, as an unnamed senior government source briefed the Sunday Times that the BBC may have to face selling off nearly all of its radio stations.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Sunday that there was an ongoing consultation into decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee, which Tories believe would be popular among those on low incomes while crippling its funding, and insisted that the BBC’s future funding model is not “preordained.”
More than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for an end to government attacks on the BBC and for it to be capable of “independently holding the government to account.”
Within Labour’s ranks, left-wing leadership contender Rebecca Long Bailey advocated a “people’s BBC” run by the public and employees without political interference.
In plans outlined on Sunday, she said that the government should not be able to appoint the BBC’s chairman — who has the ability to choose the director general — and that the role should be decided by BBC workers and the public.
Tom Mills, author of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, told the Morning Star: “Liberals often imagine that the right is universally hostile to the BBC, but it’s not true.
“They have different attitudes and priorities. The reactionary base of the Conservative Party sees it as biased towards liberal values; commercial interests want to scale back its activities in particular areas and senior Tories have always valued it as an instrument of ‘soft power.’
“What the left should be doing, in my opinion, is not leaping to the BBC’s defence alongside more ‘moderate’ Tory MPs, but developing a positive vision of public media in the 21st century that will address some of the very real problems with the BBC.”
It was also revealed today that Downing Street has yet to respond to two-week-old complaints over press freedom after it “shut out” independent photographers from recording key Brexit moments.
Number 10 used the PM’s official photographer to take images of him signing the withdrawal agreement and striking a gong at 11pm on January 31, with no independent photographers from news outlets allowed.