The future of BBC licensing fees is uncertain following the appointment of John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons Culture Committee, as the new Culture Secretary.
Whittingdale, who has chaired the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee since 2005, will take a strong stance against the BBC when charter renewal negotiations begin later this year.
In October he described the BBC license fee as “worse than poll tax” and said the £145.50 fee was not sustainable in the long term.
However, Whittingdale said he expected the license fee to survive until the end of the next charter period in 2026, but suggested it could eventually be waived to allow people a ” element of choice” in what they pay and what services they receive.
“Long term, it’s not sustainable,” he said. “When I say unsustainable in the long term, I mean more than 20, 50 years. I think in the longer term we are potentially looking at reducing at least some of the compulsory license fees and introducing an element of choice. »
He said licensing fees needed to be ‘adjusted’ to account for on-demand viewing via the BBC’s iPlayer, and he said license fee evasion should be decriminalised.
While Whittingdale said there was no “serious possibility” of license fees being waived during this charter renewal period, the BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust, is likely to to be dismantled.
In February, the Whittingdale Select Committee called for the BBC Trust to be abolished in a 166-page report that heavily criticized the company on issues including executive pay and the handling of the Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine scandals.
As culture secretary, Whittingdale will push for much tougher oversight of the BBC, including giving the National Audit Office unrestricted access to BBC accounts and creating a new public service broadcasting commission.
The 55-year-old said the BBC Trust is ‘far too close to the BBC and blurring accountability’. “An organization of the size and cost of the BBC must be subjected to the strictest independent scrutiny,” he said.
Michael Grade, former chairman of the BBC, said Whittingdale would treat the company fairly despite delivering a scathing report.
“He knows the terrain inside out,” says Michael Grade, former BBC chairman. “Of course, the all-party committee report will no doubt be fresh in his mind. But I’m sure John would come through with an open mind, with a very professional and informed approach. The BBC’s starting point is the status quo and a little more money, if that’s the starting point, they are preparing for a rude awakening. I don’t think he’s anti-BBC, he asks the right questions. It will be very fair and will have the interests of the royalty payers in mind”.
Whittingdale also carefully lent his support to press self-regulation through the Independent Press Standards Organisation, the replacement for the discredited Press Complaints Commission.
“If Ipso fails to deliver the strong regulation that we all agree is needed, it may need to be revisited, but we have to give Ipso a chance,” he said during a side event on the future of the BBC at the Conservative Party Conference last September.
Channel 4 could also face an uncertain future, with the possibility of privatization likely to be on the cards.
Conservatives quietly considered privatization under the last government.
Whittingdale, who twice served as shadow culture secretary, once tabled an amendment to the Broadcasting Bill 1996 to privatize the Ofcom-regulated public broadcaster.
Outgoing Culture Minister Sajid Javid has succeeded Vince Cable as Business Secretary.