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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.

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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.