High-profile figures were rallying behind the beleaguered BBC yesterday after reports emerged that the UK government plans to freeze the licence fee for two years and scrap it entirely in 2027.
Led by the likes of Armando Iannucci, Gary Lineker, Hugh Grant and Lucy Prebble, a backlash erupted after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries tweeted a Daily Mail article featuring the news accompanied by a tweet reading: “The licence fee announcement will be the last. The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences are over. Time now to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content.”
The BBC is in the midst of negotiating the next five years of the current £159.50 ($218) annual fee and has been clear that anything less than its aim of having the fee continue to rise with inflation will lead to huge cuts to its output and redundancies.
A BBC spokesman did not confirm whether the reports are true and stressed: “There has been similar speculation before.”
Deadline has subsequently spoken with one source with knowledge of the negotiations who also urged caution.
This source said the negotiations are nowhere near finished and Director General Tim Davie’s negotiating team can continue returning to the drawing board for the remainder of this year if they are unhappy with the proposed settlement.
If the settlement at that point is still seen as impossible to work with, the BBC can push to have the current settlement (an inflationary rise) rolled over for the next five years or Davie can threaten resignation. The latter was the action taken by former DG Mark Thompson in 2010 when the government tried to take free licence fees away from the over-75s, a move that worked.
“There is no obligation for the BBC to accept the deal and this will go on,” said the source.
The BBC spokesman said: “Anything less than inflation would put unacceptable pressure on the BBC finances after years of cuts.”
The corporation has continually stressed that super inflation is causing programming costs to soar, especially in scripted and high-end docs, with chair Richard Sharp recently revealing some of the BBC’s biggest series have doubled in price and drama costs have generally increased by around 35%.
A below inflationary rise followed by a complete scrapping of the licence fee would therefore lead to less original and less high-budget programming and would existentially threaten the BBC going forwards.
Multiple reports pointed to the timing of the announcement, coming as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approval ratings are at an all time low due mainly to an investigation into parties that took place at his home and work office in 10 Downing Street.
The Prime Minister and his advisers are said to have been angered by the BBC’s coverage of the scandal.
“>The BBC’s supporters have focused on the notion that people don’t realize how much is included with their licence fee, which is roughly equal to an annual Netflix subscription but features multiple radio and TV channels showcasing content in all genres along with reams of educational and children’s programming.
The alternatives, such as a subscription or advertiser-funded BBC, would be fraught with problems, while funding the BBC via general taxation such as income tax raises concerns that the government will interfere even more.
“Yes the BBC brings you the best in news, in sport, in drama, in music, in children’s, in science, in history, in entertainment, in current affairs and Sir David bloody Attenborough….but apart from that was has the BBC ever done for us,?” said BBC1’s Match of the Day host Lineker, who retweeted a popular graphic showing all of the services the BBC runs at a cost to the public of 43p per day each.
Acclaimed comedy writer Iannucci, who directed The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield, focused his ire on the government, stating: “First you come for Channel 4 because you don’t like its reporting of events. Now you come for the BBC because you don’t like its reporting of events. Have you ever considered whether it’s the events themselves that are the problem?”
Lauded actor Grant, who has always been vocally supportive of the BBC and appeared in 2018’s A Very English Scandal, said the “BBC is something the whole world admires with envy,” while he branded the government “insecure, spittle-flecked nut jobs.”
Succession writer Prebble urged the general public to “support the BBC even when it’s being attacked as a distraction from this dirty meringue of a government.”