The BBC fell into a Tory trap and the newspapers are happy to see it squirm

Old people vs. the BBC was always the goal of the licence fee trick

The BBC pictured talking to the government.

The BBC is a hostage to government whims. The cycle of having to beg for a licence fee settlement every few years means that its managers often make short-term calls which lead to long term pain. The latest is more of akin to a broken leg than a toothache and George Osborne was the mastermind of this particular horror.

In 2015, with the Lib Dems tossed out of coalition and the Tory government free to do as it pleased. Osborne ensured the thumb screws were on for BBC Director-General, Tony Hall, who, in secret talks, agreed that the BBC would receive some funding increases in return for taking on the cost of free TV licences for the over-75s. It would financially weaken the BBC, give the Treasury more money, and leave the BBC in the sights of the right-wing press and the public if it reneged on that deal.

Now, after announcing in June 2019 that free licences would now only be available to people in receipt of pension credit, the change has happened and the trap Osborne set has been sprung. The BBC are the ‘bad guys’ and George Osborne? He’s been gone since 2017, enjoying a second or third life as Editor of the Evening Standard, where he is now Editor-in-Chief (among his many other jobs).

The BBC said it could not continue to fund free licences, pegging the cost of doing so for every pensioner at £745 million — one-fifth of its total budget — by 2021/22. It said spending that money would lead to the closure of services including BBC 2 and Radio 5 Live. Speaking at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, last year, the Prime Minister said, in his fake chummy manner, that “the BBC received a settlement that was conditional upon their paying for TV licences for the over-75s. They should cough up.”

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Free TV licences were first given to over-75s in 2000 by the Labour government. The 2017 Conservative manifesto pledged to maintain them. But when the government forced the BBC into a new charter agreement in 2015, the BBC was made to take on that cost from 2020. Despite the Prime Minister’s assertion — and the continuing assertions from ministers — that the BBC is breaking a promise, it disagrees.

After Johnson’s comments at the G7 last year, a BBC spokesperson said:

"It was the government which decided to stop funding free TV licences for the over-75s, and Parliament gave responsibility to the BBC to make a decision on the future of the scheme. There was no guarantee that the BBC would continue to fund free licences for the over-75s."

In June 2019, former Tory Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, gave the game away during a debate in the House of Commons, responding to the then Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright:

May I respectfully say to my right hon. and learned Friend that when the decision was taken it was understood that this would be a possible outcome, not least because to maintain the existing concession would cost the BBC nearly £1 billion by the end of the charter period, which would mean either huge programme cuts or increasing the licence fee for the under-75s to nearly £200? Does he accept that restricting the concession to those over-75s on pension credit will provide help to elderly people on ​low incomes, and if it is publicised properly, it should actually significantly the increase the take-up of pension credit?

The government then shifted the debate — with the help of outsiders like The Daily Mail — to the question of star salaries at the BBC. The corporation’s Director of Policy, Clare Sumner, argued: “Even if we stopped employing every presenter earning more than £150,000, that would save less than £20 million. If no senior manager were paid over £150,000, that would save less than £5 million.”

The problem with that reasonable financial argument is that the BBC does have too many managers. And people within the corporation I have talked to are deeply frustrated by the layers of bureaucracy that get in the way of programme-making, newsgathering, and other creative work.

Limiting the free licence fee scheme to people receiving pension credit means the cost to the BBC in 2021/22 should be £250 million rather than a service burning £700 million +.

Former BBC journalist and ex-Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, got it right when he said last year:

“The BBC is an independent broadcaster. It’s not a branch of the Department of Work and Pensions. This was always going to happen — the BBC was stupid to accept this as part of the licence fee settlement but it certainly wasn’t a condition of it. And if the government wants over-75s to continue to receive free licences it needs to fund it.”

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the BBC delaying the end of automatic free TV licences for the over-75s. But F-Day arrived and now the BBC is between a cock and hard place — with Boris Johnson grandstanding and papers like the Daily Mail applying pressure from the other side. Over-75s who don’t receive pension credit must now pay £157.50 a year from 1 August. And the BBC looks awful.

Campaigning organisations like Age UK are making hay from the situation. They have called the BBC’s decision “a kick in the teeth.” Meanwhile, the Daily Mail is doing what it does best — making this pain last multiple days.

Every day, the Mail focuses on another so-called ‘indignity’ for pensioners. Yesterday it was about ‘bailiffs being sent to seize pensioners TVs’ though, as anyone — like me, who has been in debt will tell you that’s something that would only happen if people refuse to find a way to pay. And with a TV licence, if you really can’t face paying, there is an option — don’t have a TV.

But you don’t expect the Daily Mail to debate in good faith. If you do, you’re a fool. Sadly, the BBC itself allows papers like the Daily Mail to set the terms of the debate. On its radio stations yesterday, debates about what over-75s deserve and what having the bailiffs on your door means were common. It was foolish. But then, this is what The Daily Mail was selling:

The BBC is putting tens of millions of pounds towards chasing pensioners for their license fee payments as the corporation has said it plans to ‘enforce the law’.

And bailiffs could even be sent into the homes to seize and sell their possessions if ministers decide to support replacing the criminal sanction for licence-fee evasion with a civil penalty.

New call centres manned by 800 staff are being set up to deal with questions and some expected resistance from the over-75s about the fee.

The dream for The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, and the Murdoch papers is that pensioners end up chained up outside BBC Broadcasting House singing We Shall Overcome. They — and the government, especially Dominic Cummings — want the BBC to suffer and ultimately they want it weakened.

Cummings made his view of the BBC very clear even before he got near the levers of power and started making those aggressive appearances outside his house. Certainly, he despised the BBC even before he had to sit in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street to explain his unique approach to eyesight tests. When he ran a think tank called the New Frontiers Foundation in 2004, it called for a campaign to target the BBC and wipe away impartiality rules to allow for a British Fox News-style station.

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In a blog post from September 2004, most likely penned by Cummings, the New Frontiers Foundation said:

“There are three structural things that the right needs to happen in terms of communications... 1) the undermining of the BBC’s credibility; 2) the creation of a Fox News equivalent/talk radio shows/bloggers etc to shift the centre of gravity; 3) the end of the ban on TV political advertising.”

Cummings also suggested that ministers should boycott Radio 4’s flagship morning news show Today. That came to pass when Cummings entered Downing Street with Boris Johnson in 2019. It has slackened somewhat since the pandemic required ministers to get out ahead of announcements more often, however, the Tory government continues to be reticent to work with BBC News and continues to boycott the Piers Morgan-fronted Good Morning Britain.

In the same New Frontiers Foundation post, Cummings et al. asserted: “The BBC is a determined propagandist with a coherent ideology. We are paying for it. We should not be. We should be changing the game.” Cummings doesn’t want to tweak the BBC. Cummings wants to burn it down.

In another post, the think-tank went even further:

“We should be aiming for the end of the BBC in its current form and the legalisation of TV political advertising”.

Elsewhere, it put forward a plan for using the dark arts against the BBC:

“The privileged closed world of the BBC needs to be turned upside down and its very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign that involves bringing out whistleblowers armed with internal memos and taped conversations of meetings.”

As the government gears up to launch live briefings with a new high-profile on-camera spokesperson (the good odds are on Allegra Stratton), you can expect to see other moves suggested by the New Frontiers Foundation (Cummings with a jaunty hat on) come to pass. The BBC will be under attack from dirty tricks and the Osborne trap has come at a very handy time for Cummings’ plans to ramp up.