LONDON – Britain’s new government is taking aim at the BBC, accusing it of bias in reporting the recently concluded elections that gave Prime Minister Boris Johnson a sweeping mandate.
The row over perceived partiality from the corporation and ensuing threats about its license fee funding have erupted before but this time come against a backdrop of tensions about Brexit.
The issue is likely to dominate the brief of newly-reappointed culture minister Nicky Morgan in the run-up to talks in 2022 about whether to maintain the license at current levels.
Morgan has said she would be “open-minded” about scrapping the license and replacing it with a Netflix-style subscription service.
The government has previously committed to maintain the license fee model until 2027. A standard license costs each British household just over £154 ($202 or 182 euros) a year.
But junior finance minister Rishi Sunak suggested non-payment could now be decriminalized.
“That is something the prime minister has said we will look at, and has instructed people to look at that,” he said on Sunday.
In the last financial year to April 30, the BBC received £3.7 billion in funding from the license fee — an enviable revenue stream in tough economic times for media companies.
That makes it open to criticism, particularly from commercial rivals as advertising revenues fall, and viewing habits and news consumption change to streaming and social media.
A largely right-wing print media, meanwhile, sees the giant corporation as an unapologetic bastion of the liberal, metropolitan — and largely pro-EU — elite.
Anger and frustration at the failure to implement Brexit — particularly outside London — has only made the situation more acute.
Johnson’s electoral success largely came on the back of populist sloganeering to “Get Brexit Done” but he also faced criticism that he was unwilling to face close scrutiny over his policies.
His ruling Conservative party were incensed when one of the BBC’s top political interviewers, Andrew Neil, publicly berated the premier on air for refusing to speak to him.
The Tories were also angry at the broadcaster’s reporting of a story from the main opposition Labour-supporting Mirror about a young boy sleeping on the floor of a hospital.
The government has not denied reports it has since stopped senior ministers from appearing on BBC radio’s flagship “Today” show, which often sets the day’s political agenda.
To some extent, the row is the most recent example of the government of the day trying to control its media image.
But Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at the University of Sussex, said the threats were also “revenge” for Neil’s personal attack on Johnson and the hospital scandal.
Breakdown in trust?
Jean Seaton, professor of media history at the University of Westminster and the BBC’s official historian, said similar criticism from Labour made the situation more dangerous.
“That’s what’s unusual,” she told AFP, describing the face-off as an “information war”.
Andy McDonald, a lawmaker close to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, has claimed the BBC’s political coverage “played a part” in the party’s crushing election defeat.
Corbyn had been “demonized and vilified” during the campaign, and portrayed as a supporter of anti-Semitism, and as a terrorist sympathizer,” he said.
“We have a catalogue of complaints against our public service broadcaster, our precious BBC, which I’m afraid has been brought into the fray.”
Despite claims about a breakdown in trust in the national broadcaster, at least twice as many people watched the BBC on election night than their rivals, figures showed.
The corporation maintains that the license fee, at £2.97 per week, is value for money, as it pays for all its TV, radio and online services.
BBC chairman Tony Hall said in a post-election message to staff that elections “always put the BBC’s impartiality in the spotlight”.
He blamed social media for offering “a megaphone to those who want to attack us and makes this pressure greater than ever. The conspiracy theories that abound are frustrating.”
Abuse of journalists had been “sickening”, he said, calling on social media platforms to “do more” about the vitriol.
Veteran news presenter Huw Edwards also weighed in, admitting some “honest mistakes” but accusing the BBC’s most vocal critics of seeking to “undermine trust” and “cause chaos and confusion”.
“The BBC can never be good enough, and people will forever shout at the screen,” added political commentator and ex-BBC staffer Polly Toynbee in the Guardian newspaper.
“To be the only national arbiter of everything is an impossible burden. But recently it has become infinitely harder.”