Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
17 February 2020

Is Downing Street preparing for all-out war with the BBC?

For Boris Johnson, changing the BBC might yet prove more difficult than changing the country.

By Stephen Bush

A senior source has told the Sunday Times’s Tim Shipman that the government’s forthcoming consultation will recommend the abolition of the licence fee, a reduction in the number of BBC TV and radio channels, and a scaling back of the BBC’s website.

As Katy Balls recently pointed out, Boris Johnson has long believed that reforming the BBC was a vital first step for the British right, writing in 2012 that if they couldn’t change the Beeb, they couldn’t change the country.

So we should take Johnson’s commitment seriously, rather than seeing it as part of a psychodrama about which of his advisors he is listening to. But just because a prime minister is committed to something, doesn’t mean they have the ability to make it happen.

Johnson starts with a fairly broad coalition at Westminster around the position that, whatever you may think of its value in the 20th century, a compulsory licence fee is not an enduring way to fund the BBC in the 21st.

But when you add onto that various political demands, like axing Radio 2, or BBC 6Music, or BBC Four, then you are, inevitably narrowing that coalition. For some people, this is because commissioning decisions should rest in the hands of the BBC, for others it’s simply because their voters quite like Radio 2.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

As far as the BBC is concerned, the government is at its most dangerous when the political argument around the BBC is about what the BBC does – rather than how it is funded. And that’s Johnson’s biggest problem as far as the BBC goes: he wants to use the argument over the licence fee to change the BBC. But not everyone who agrees with him on the licence fee, even on the Conservative benches, will sign up to a broad programme of reform to its output. Changing the BBC might yet prove more difficult than changing the country.

Content from our partners
The shrinking road to net zero
The tree-planting misconception
Is your business ready for corporate climate reporting?