The BBC must report local issues rather than reflect views of “metropolitan bubbles”, a minister has said as he cast doubt on the licence fee’s future.
Operational and editorial decisions are for the corporation but the government believes it must represent all of Britain, John Whittingdale told the Commons.
The culture minister also expressed “considerable sympathy” with Tory calls to reform how the BBC is funded, but said a reliance on Freeview does not allow such change just yet.
But the way people watch television now means questions about the “sustainability” of the licence fee will be under consideration during the 2027 charter review process, the minister added.
Opposition MPs criticised the government for putting the cost of free TV licences for over-75s on the BBC, which will become means-tested from next month.
Answering an urgent question in the Commons, Whittingdale said: “As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to represent all of the nation, both its youngest and oldest citizens, no matter where they live and I am aware that many people have expressed concerns about cuts to regional programming as well as the BBC’s recent announcement of staffing reductions.
“Let me be clear – both operational and editorial decisions are a matter for the BBC. It is an independent body and the government rightly has no say in the day-to-day decisions it makes on programming, staffing or the administration of the licence fee.
“But as I have said, including during a recent adjournment debate, the government believes that the BBC must represent all of Britain. We set clear targets for news and current affairs and the need to represent all parts of the UK in the charter as part of the BBC’s mission and public purposes.
“It is for the BBC and Ofcom to hold it to account on doing so. That means engaging and reporting on local issues across our diverse communities, not just reflecting the views of the metropolitan bubbles of London and Manchester.”
Liberal Democrat culture spokesperson Daisy Cooper, who secured the urgent question, said: “The BBC licence fee exists to give the BBC protection from political interference. It shouldn’t be making decisions on welfare, that is the role of the government.”
Shadow culture minister Christian Matheson said: “The government made the BBC an offer it couldn’t refuse – take on responsibility for paying the over-75s’ TV licence or we’ll slash your funding even further and consider removing the licence fee altogether.”
He also said: “Cuts to the BBC, as everyone in this chamber knows, are not merely about spending, but undermining the corporation’s independence.”
Whittingdale said the government is considering the “very large” number of responses on the issue of decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee.
Tory Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) said: “If the BBC want to win friends in this place, they should look after the regions.”
Whittingdale replied: “I am still concerned at the level of cuts that are taking place and we will be watching very carefully to make sure that the BBC continues to fulfil its obligations for regional coverage.”
Addressing Tory calls to reform the licence fee, Whittingdale also said: “We are not yet at a point where we could consider moving to a subscription service because a lot of people still rely on Freeview and it doesn’t allow it.
“But I think the way in which people consume television is changing so fast that it will increasingly lead to questions about the sustainability of the licence fee and that will certainly be something under consideration when we come to the next charter review.”
He later said: “The landscape is changing so fast and there’s so much more choice now available to viewers that it should cause the BBC to look again at what it provides and consider those areas where it’s still important there is a public service content and where perhaps in other areas it’s no longer so necessary.
“That will be a fundamental issue which will be under consideration as part of our forthcoming public service broadcasting review.
“At the same time, we will also be talking to the BBC in detail, as part of the licence fee negotiations, about the funding they will require in the future.”
DUP MP Sammy Wilson said many of his East Antrim constituents are “fed up with the begging bowl behaviour of the BBC” and accused the corporation of “political bias”, while Conservative Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) said there should be a commitment to “scrapping” the licence fee at the next charter review.
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