Boris Johnson revealed yesterday (09/12/19) that the BBC licence fee could be called into question by a future Conservative government.
In response to a question on the campaign trail in the North East, Johnson said that the current funding model “bears reflection”. Addressing a crowd of workers in a factory, he asked: “How long can you justify a system whereby everybody who has a TV has to pay to fund a particular set of TV and radio channels?”
Calling the licence fee “effectively a general tax”, Johnson said: “You have to ask yourself whether that kind of approach to funding a media organisation still makes sense in the long term, given the way other organisations manage to fund themselves.”
There is no commitment in the Conservative manifesto to scrap the licence fee, and Johnson confirmed that “at this stage we are not planning to get rid of all licence fees.” With an implicit jibe at his rival Jeremy Corbyn, he said: “I don’t think at this last stage in the campaign I’m going to make an unfunded spending commitment like that.”
The licence fee is guaranteed to remain in place until at least 2027, when the BBC’s Royal Charter ends. It is currently £154.50 a year, set to rise with inflation until 2022. There will be negotiations to determine the amount which the corporation is allowed to charge from that point onwards. The Prime Minister’s comments open the door to restricting the BBC’s funding from 2022 and introducing a new funding model from 2027.
Johnson criticised the BBC for introducing the licence fee for over-75s, who will be required to pay from June 2020. He argued that the corporation should “cough up […] as they promised to do”. The BBC introduced this measure after the former chancellor George Osborne passed the cost of free TV licences for pensioners onto the BBC in 2015. Maintaining free licences for those over 75 would have cost the corporation £745 million by 2021-22.
Johnson’s comments align him to some degree with the Brexit Party. In its ‘contract with the people’ it pledges to “phase out” the licence fee. The Labour Party manifesto promises “a healthy future for all our public service broadcasters” and to “protect free TV licences for over-75s”. The Liberal Democrats would “protect the independence of the BBC and set up a BBC Licence Fee Commission”.