The BBC – like the NHS and the United Nations – is an institution that it is dangerous for any politician to criticise but the Conservative Party is right to point out its faults. ConservativeHome recently welcomed George Osborne’s critique of the way the BBC crowds out competition and David Cameron’s complaint about Tim Westwood’s violent playlist. Hugo Swire’s intervention of today also deserves praise.
Speaking in a Commons debate, Mr Swire, Tory Culture & Media spokesman, acknowledged that there was "huge support amongst the public for the BBC but," he warned, "an unacceptably high level for the Licence Fee will undermine that support". There are plans for the licence fee to grow from £131.50 a year to £180 by 2014. This would be an increase of inflation plus 2.3% every year – at a time when more and more people are turning to satellite TV and the internet for their entertainment and news. Mr Swire thinks that £180 would be "simply too high for many families on low incomes".
Mr Swire has called for the National Audit Office to undertake "full and transparent scrutiny" of how the Corporation spends the licence fee (levied regressively on every household as a poll tax). There has been controversy over the high salaries being paid to top BBC presenters like Jonathan Ross (£18m over three years). Independent rivals to the BBC – not fortunate enough to have its unique source of compulsory income – complain that the BBC could cause super-inflation in the industry and make it harder and harder to compete. Mr Swire also noted that "recent Beethoven downloads exercise saw the BBC make available one million free downloads". This, he said, would carry an £8 million price tag in the marketplace and "if repeated could severely damage the commercial market".
John Whittingdale, the Tory chairman of the Commons Culture committee, came to Mr Swire’s support: "The BBC is already by far the biggest player and an increase of this kind will distort the market further and place the BBC in too dominant a position". Even the LibDems agreed that the proposed increase was too high. Shaun Woodward, Labour deputy to Tessa Jowell (who skipped the debate), said MPs risked playing politics with one of Britain’s most trusted institutions. Labour, who fell out with the BBC after the Hutton Report, may see the licence fee debate as a way of rebuilding bridges with the Corporation.
The Daily Mail covers the Commons debate on the BBC here.