Great Britain

BBC on the brink: Boris declares war on Beeb… but shock Tory rebels fight back

A plan floated by Government insiders yesterday proposed replacing the annual TV licence fee which funds the national broadcaster with a Netflix-style subscription service.

The blueprint also suggested the BBC should be forced to sell of the overwhelming majority of its 61 radio stations and scrap some of its 10 TV channels.

But Tory backbenchers Damian Green and Huw Merriman implored the Prime Minister not to launch an offensive against the corporation.

Mr Green, a former Cabinet minister who was effectively Theresa May’s deputy in the last parliament, claimed the proposals threatened “cultural vandalism.”

The MP for Ashford hoped that reports of the blueprint were “kite-flying”, a Westminster term for floating a radical idea to gauge reaction rather than a serious policy commitment.

“Destroying the BBC wasn’t in our manifesto and would be cultural vandalism,” he said on Twitter.

Questioning whether the idea would be popular, he added: “Vote Tory and close Radio 2. Really?”

Huw Merriman, Tory MP for Bexhill and Battle, accused some figures in the Government of having a “vendetta” against the corporation.

“I’m not sure this vendetta against the BBC is going to end well,” he said.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson declares war on Beeb (Image: Getty Images)

BBC

Tory backbenchers implored the Prime Minister not to launch an offensive against the corporation (Image: Getty Images)

Referring to the proposed shake up, he added: “No mention of it in our manifesto, where we actually promised to work with BBC to build new partnerships across the globe, so I won’t be supporting it.”

The MPs hit out after a Sunday newspaper quoted a senior Government source as threatening a “massive pruning back” of the BBC.

“We are not bluffing on the licence fee. We are having a consultation and we will whack it. It has to be a subscription model,” the newspaper quoted the source as saying.

“They’ve got hundreds of radio stations, they’ve got all these TV stations and a massive website. The whole things needs massive pruning back.

“They should have a few TV stations, a couple of radio stations and a massively curtailed online presence and put more money and effort into the World Service, which is part of its core job.”

A Number 10 source was quoted as saying: "The PM is firmly of the view that there needs to be serious reform. He is really strident on this."

Other proposals in the plan included scaling back the BBC’s website and banning the corporation’s stars from lucrative second jobs. The blueprint was said to recommend ditching the “vast majority” of BBC radio stations while safeguarding Radio 3 and Radio 4.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (Image: Getty Images)

A Cabinet minister sought to play down reports of the plan yesterday.

"There is a consultation out there. It is just a consultation at this stage. There are no further decisions made at all.

"The BBC is a much loved national treasure. We all want it to be a huge success. But everybody, including the BBC themselves, recognises that in a changing world the BBC itself will have to change.

"But it is simply not the case that there is some preordained decision about the future funding of the BBC out there. The charter runs to 2027 so there is long way to go on all these decisions."

A Downing Street spokeswoman yesterday claimed the reports were “over the top” while pointing out that the Government’s only policy decision about the BBC since the general election was to hold a public consultation on a proposal to end criminal prosecutions for non-payment of the licence fee.

The spokeswoman said: “This is not formal policy. The Government’s only commitment at the moment is to hold a consultation on decriminalising the licence fee.”

Former culture secretary John Whittingdale was appointed Minister of State at his old department in last week’s reshuffle to oversee Government policy towards the broadcaster.

The BBC’s current Royal Charter, which sets out the aims and purpose of the national broadcaster, is due for renewal at the end of 2027.

Ministers are due to carry out a mid-term review of the governance and regulation of the BBC under the charter during the current parliamentary term.

In response to yesterday’s reports, a BBC spokesman said: "The BBC plays an important role for the country at home and abroad, it is the bedrock of our world-beating creative industries, and reaches millions of people every day.

"The public back it and they will undoubtedly have their own views about the future."

Last week, BBC chairman Sir David Clementi last week used a speech to defend the licence fee system.

He warned that putting the broadcaster behind a paywall would undermine its ability to "bring the country together".

Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of news and current affairs

Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of news and current affairs (Image: Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson's aides also turned their fire on highly-paid BBC stars who made huge sums from outside work, suggesting they should be forced to donate the money to charity.

"It's an outrage that people who make their profile at public expense should seek to give themselves further financial rewards and personal gain," one source was quoted as saying in the Sunday newspaper report.

"They're basically making their names on the taxpayer and cashing in. The BBC should immediately halt this practice and give the money to good causes."

Some Tory MPs are understood to want the BBC drastically cut back in revenge for alleged bias against Brexit and against their party during the general election.

Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of news and current affairs, yesterday insisted the corporation would not be “bullied” by critics on the Right or the Left of politics.

She told the Observer newspaper: “We have just got to keep restating our case that we will listen to everybody, serve everybody and host everybody but not be bullied by either side.

“We don’t get it right all the time, obviously, and people can be unhappy with what we do, and that is fine.”