The BBC and press freedom have this year come under repeated attacks from an emboldened and increasingly authoritarian Tory government.
In its most recent broadside against the BBC, a ‘senior government source’ at the weekend (February 16) told the Sunday Times of the government’s intention to ‘whack’ the licence fee – and scale back much of the public service broadcaster’s output.
“We are not bluffing on the licence fee,” the source was quoted as saying. “We are having a consultation and we will whack it. 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.
The source added that the BBC should have only “a few TV stations, a couple of radio stations and massively curtailed online presence”.
The strident remarks from the government source come just days after the culture secretary Nicky Morgan announced the start of a consultation on whether non-payment of the licence fee should be a criminal or civil offence.
Last week, BBC chairman Sir David Clementi highlighted why axing the licence fee and introducing a subscription model would pose an existential threat to the public broadcaster.
“The BBC is a great national asset; a diminished BBC is a weakened United Kingdom,” Sir David said in a speech in Salford last Wednesday (February 12).
“Sitting behind a paywall, it would no longer be the place that brings the country together for the Strictly final, or Gavin & Stacey on Christmas Day, or the Armistice Anniversary or Holocaust Memorial,” he added.
“Nor would it be the place that all could turn to celebrate live important moments we enjoy as a nation: Royal weddings or jubilees, or Olympic successes.”
Sir David added that if the licence fee were to be made voluntary, then the government would have to take over the £250m investment that the fee contributes to the World Service.
Boris Johnson – a long-time critic of the BBC who lambasted the Corporation for what he believed was anti-Tory bias in its election coverage and even boycotted the Today programme – has come out swinging against other media outlets viewed as critical of the government.
In a move reminiscent of US president Donald Trump’s authoritarian style, Boris Johnson’s most senior communications adviser Lee Cain attempted to ban reporters from the Mirror, the i, HuffPost, PoliticsHome, the Independent and others from attending a government briefing.
The incident prompted journalists to walk out from the briefing and provoked an outcry from MPs across the political spectrum after the issue was raised in an urgent question in the House of Commons.
Unite national officer Louisa Bull slammed the actions of Boris Johnson and his advisers as “sinister in the extreme”.
In a speech to a MediaNorth conference in Leeds, Bull called the incident “a blatant attempt by Johnson to avoid hard questions and an attempt to direct the narrative from those media outlets that he perceives to be either friendly or under his control.
“We should all applaud those journalists who walked out and I for one hope that the Lobby team refuse to be bullied by Johnson as this is a slippery slope that clearly demonstrates a government that is determined to control the news media in whatever way they can,” she added.
While she criticised unbalanced general election coverage in the media which saw unprecedented attacks against Jeremy Corbyn in particular, she said government threats against the BBC were inexcusable.
“The government’s attack on the BBC will not help and is designed to undermine democracy and bully journalists into doing the bidding of the government,” she said.
“If the BBC wants to win back the support of trade unionists and socialists it would do well to recognise that it made errors and the imbalance such as the high visibility of people like Nigel Farage, who is not elected to anything, must come to an end.”
She called on trade unions to be a “critical friend of the BBC” and ensure that “lobbyists from Sky, Netflix, Amazon and others as well as the Tory supporting newspapers are not allowed to bulldoze the BBC and other broadcasters into doing their bidding”.
Unite will put forward its own submission to the consultation on non-payment of the licence fee and as ever would be standing up for BBC values and jobs, Bull noted.
“We will be working closely with our sister unions and will ensure we make a strong submission to this government consultation,” she said. “The BBC is part of UK PLC and we must do all we can to protect the brand.”