Fresh off a thumping election victory, Prime Minister Boris Johnson may be preparing to target one of his country’s most recognizable institutions: The BBC.
Johnson suggested during the campaign that he could scrap the license fee that supports the BBC, a massive organization that produces a huge number of entertainment programs and employs over 2,000 journalists around the world.
The £154.50 ($206) annual fee is paid by all Brits who watch or stream live TV. Last year, the BBC received more than £3.8 billion ($5 billion) from the tax, accounting for about 75% of its budget.
Speaking at a campaign stop days before the election, Johnson said “you have to ask yourself whether that kind of approach to funding a TV, a media organization still makes sense in the long term.”
On Sunday, Treasury official Rishi Sunak confirmed that Johnson had ordered a review of the license fee. One question is whether Brits who fail to pay the fee should continue to face legal action.
The scrutiny follows a general election campaign in which the BBC faced accusations of bias from both main UK political parties. Like all UK broadcasters, the BBC is required to remain impartial.
Officials from Johnson’s Conservative Party have slammed the network for alleged bias against Brexit. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has accused the BBC of being unfair to its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
While criticism of the BBC is not new, tensions are running high. According to media reports, the prime minister’s office is boycotting BBC’s marquee morning radio program “Today” over its campaign coverage.
A government spokesperson told reporters on Monday when asked about the boycott that there had been many administration voices across the BBC over the weekend.
Labour Party officials, smarting from their worst electoral performances in decades, slammed the media and the BBC for how they portrayed the party and specifically Corbyn.
One Labour official, Andrew McDonald, told the public broadcaster during an interview Monday that he was “very worried” about its coverage and said it played a part in Labour’s losses.
“[I]f the BBC are going to hold themselves out as somehow having conducted themselves in an impartial manner, I think they’ve really got to have a look in the mirror. We’ve got a lot to say about this,” he said.
Earlier this month, one of the party’s campaign coordinators, Andrew Gwyne, wrote to the BBC’s Director General complaining over what he described as “anti-Labour,” “slanted and biased” coverage of the election.
The broadcaster does have its defenders, including the Evening Standard Newspaper, which is edited by former Conservative Treasury chief George Osborne.
The paper wrote in an editorial Monday that while there should be a “serious conversation” about the license fee and the broadcaster’s approach to political interviews, “Britain is much better off with the BBC than without it.”
Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalist called on critics to “lay off” the BBC.
“Let’s be clear — knee-jerk changes to the license fee would massively damage BBC programmes and news. The corporation is already facing serious cuts in the coming year, with potentially more on the horizon,” she said. “It needs greater resources, not an attempt to destabilize its very existence.”
The BBC’s own journalists are also defending the network, with top anchor Huw Edwards writing on LinkedIn “that the real purpose of many of the attacks is to undermine trust in institutions which have been sources of stability over many decades,” and to cause “chaos and confusion.”
Any changes to the BBC’s funding model would need approval by parliament, where the Conservative party now holds a commanding majority of 80 seats.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of money from licensing fees that the BBC received last year.