Johnson’s Conservative Party, which has long complained of left-wing bias at the pubcaster, is reportedly planning to shun the BBC’s influential morning radio show, “Today,” which traditionally sets the agenda for the day’s media coverage of politics. Government officials also say they may review the license fee that the BBC depends on for funding and decriminalize non-payment of the fee.
The moves follow last Thursday’s U.K. general election. Johnson and his Tories won a commanding majority in Parliament, primarily on a pledge to deliver Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, and now wield enormous power to enact their conservative agenda.
Media reports say that government ministers have been instructed to avoid appearing on the “Today” program, which is famous for its presenters’ breakfast-time grilling of politicians and other interviewees. Even the sitting prime minister is expected to appear occasionally on the radio show to defend government policy. But Johnson, who was accused of ducking the media and avoiding tough questions during the election campaign, has apparently pulled the plug on that tradition.
The decision is in retaliation against what the Conservatives say is unfair coverage of their election campaign by the BBC’s news division. They point to the criticism that dogged Johnson for refusing to submit to an interview by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, who is known to be a tough questioner (other party leaders agreed to be interviewed by him), and what the Tories insist was an overemphasis on an incident in which Johnson appeared to be dismissive of the plight of an ill child.
Conversely, the opposition Labour Party, which fared badly at the polls, has also accused the BBC of bias against it and in favor of the Conservatives.
Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, has rejected accusations of bias. “Of course we’ve made the odd mistake and we’ve held up our hands to them,” Hall wrote in a letter to BBC staff. “Editors are making tough calls every minute of the day. But I don’t accept the view of those critics who jump on a handful of examples to suggest we’re somehow biased one way or the other.”
Johnson’s government has also suggested that it would look at changing the BBC’s funding model. During the election campaign, he called the license fee, which all viewers must pay, a tax that essentially gives the BBC an unfair advantage over other media organizations and companies.
The annual license fee is about $200 per television-viewing household and brings in billions of dollars to the BBC. Failure to pay is currently a criminal offense, but officials said they would consider changing that.
The BBC contends that decriminalization would result in the loss of £200 million (about $260 million) in revenue. That would come on top of the government’s already-existing order that the BBC subsidize senior citizens’ license fees. Previously, the government paid for the television licenses of the elderly, but the Conservatives have shifted that burden onto the BBC itself, which will cost the pubcaster hundreds of millions of dollars.