Nicky Morgan ‘open’ to reviewing licence fee – but urges caution over BBC funding
The Culture Secretary believes a review of the licence fee should take place - but does not want to see the BBC's output suffer as a result, writes Sebastian Whale
Speaking to Nicky Morgan this week, I did not get the impression she was expecting to stick around for long as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. “My intention to step back remains but I will have the honour of being in the House of Lords,” said the former MP, who announced she was standing down in October.
On the Monday after the general election, Morgan, who had played a prominent role during the campaign, received a phone call from the prime minister. Boris Johnson asked her to remain in post, before a more sweeping reshuffle of his senior team after the 31st of January. To do this, the former education secretary would have to be ennobled. On Monday this week, she was made Baroness Morgan of Cotes.
Bar any more surprises, we could be in the final act of Morgan’s Cabinet career. Despite this reality, the Secretary of State still had plenty to say on policy pertaining to her brief. Many of her most eye-catching views can be found in the full write-up for The House here. But her response to a review of the licence fee also triggered my interest.
In the final days of the general election, Johnson said he was considering abolishing the licence fee and decriminalising non-payment. It came after a period of animus between the Conservatives and the BBC over the corporation’s political coverage. “At this stage we are not planning to get rid of all licence fees, though I am certainly looking at it,” Johnson said. He added: “The system of funding out of effectively a general tax bears reflection. How long can you justify a system whereby everybody who has a TV has to pay to fund a particular set of TV and radio channels?”
The BBC’s royal charter guarantees the existence of the licence fee until 2027. But fresh negotiations will begin soon over how much the BBC can charge for the licence fee from 2022. The talks present a potential avenue to restrict the corporation’s funding.
Asked about the licence fee, Morgan said: “We want great broadcasting, but the way people consume television, news and broadcasting is changing. It’s why we need better connectivity, for example. The younger generation doesn’t watch live TV or terrestrial TV in the same way. They want to be able to download what they want, when they want it and have all that content. The BBC and others have got to keep up with that.”
The Tory peer also said MPs are receiving pushback from voters over the tax. “This is something we’re going to have to be open to looking at,” she continued.
But the Culture Secretary also urged a word of caution. “We’ll see. It’s a big step, a huge step. What I don’t want to see is the BBC’s income being put under threat to such an extent that the diversity and breadth of their programming is something that we don’t see in the future.”
No 10 refused to put up any ministers to appear on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme after 12 December. Speaking before Christmas, editor Sarah Sands said: "What’s happened is that you can see the government won a big majority. It sees Labour in disarray and it thinks it’s a pretty good time to put the foot on the windpipe of an independent broadcaster. So the strategy is quite Trumpian: to delegitimise the BBC."
Morgan is a defender of the UK’s “robust” media. “It’s one of the areas in my portfolio that in a way I try to comment less on, because I think the freedom of the press is a very important thing. They don’t want lots of commentary coming from this building,” she said in response to a question on the media’s coverage of the Royal Family.
In October, Morgan told the Culture Committee that she was “open-minded” about scrapping the BBC television licence fee and replacing it with a Netflix-style subscription service. While that is compatible with what the prime minister has said on the matter, Morgan’s warning over BBC funding is notable. If the licence fee is abolished, she wants to ensure that the BBC’s output is not heavily impacted.
In February, we are expecting a more sweeping reshuffle of Johnson’s top team. In the Conservative roster are many MPs who have long-held views about how the BBC is run and funded. If Johnson is considering more radical change over the corporation's funding, one of these BBC-sceptics could get the call-up.
For the BBC and defenders of it, losing a frontbench champion in the shape of Morgan could be cause for concern.