EDINBURGH — The U.K. government’s media minister, John Whittingdale, has denied that Rupert Murdoch played any role whatsoever in the recent decision to force the BBC to pay for the cost of license fees for those over the age of 75.
Interviewed at the Edinburgh Intl. Television Festival on Wednesday, Whittingdale, minister for culture, media and sport, said it was “a conspiracy theory gone mad” to suggest that Murdoch had played a part in influencing the British government’s decision to force further economies on the BBC.
It had been reported that Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne held a meeting with Murdoch shortly before Whittingdale announced his decision to phase in financing the cost of license fees for the over-75s from 2017. The move will cost the BBC around £750 million ($1.16 billion) a year.
“The idea that somehow it was dictated by Rupert Murdoch from New York is…a conspiracy theory gone mad,” Whittingdale said Wednesday.
Whittingdale also denied what some regard as the new Conservative government’s determination to cut the BBC down to size as “unfinished business” from the Thatcher era, where Whittingdale was Thatcher’s political secretary.
He insisted he had no ideological hostility to the BBC, despite recently publishing a government Green Paper that seeks to examine the scale and scope of the public broadcaster prior to the renewal of its Royal Charter next year.
“I have never suggested dismantling the BBC,” Whittingdale told delegates at the TV talking shop.
It was, however, appropriate to examine the BBC’s activities given the pace of change sparked by digital disruption in the past decade, said the politician.
Whittingdale added that he thought it was vital the BBC remained in the entertainment business, despite speculation that government ministers would like to see the BBC ax shows like “Strictly Come Dancing” and “The Voice” and concentrate on more upscale fare.
“It was absolutely appropriate that the BBC did shows like ‘Strictly,’ ” said Whittingdale, referring to “Strictly Come Dancing” (known as “Dancing With the Stars” in the U.S.)
He did question why a free-to-air broadcaster was able to outbid another free-to-air broadcaster for “The Voice” — claiming that the BBC paid more for the show than ITV was prepared to offer. However a member of the audience involved in selling the format for “The Voice” pointed out that the BBC had secured rights to the series because of its creative vision for the show and not because it bid more than ITV.
Whittingdale said it was only right for the squeeze on the BBC to be in line with other U.K. government departments — and it was these economic realities rather than a philosophical dislike of the BBC that was driving the government’s agenda.
Asked if he would have any objection to a U.S. buyer acquiring a majority stake in ITV, the media minister signalled he would have no objections provided the broadcaster’s public service mandate was honored.
When it was suggested that the present media environment represented a “precarious moment” for the BBC and the rest of the British TV community because of new competition from the likes of Netflix, Whittingdale denied this was the case.
“This is a fantastic time to be a creator of TV,” said Whittingdale.
Earlier in the day BBC director general Tony Hall had told the Daily Mirror that further cuts to the broadcaster’s mandate and funding could result in more than 30,000 job losses across the U.K. TV industry.
“New research shows that, because of the boost the BBC provides, if you cut the license fee by 25% you’d lose about 32,000 jobs across the whole economy,” said Hall.