LONDON — Britain is freezing the levy that pays for the BBC for two years in a move designed to control the cost of living, the U.K.’s culture secretary announced Monday.
It’s a move critics see as designed to distract from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political trouble over a slew of parties in government that took place amid coronavirus curbs. But Nadine Dorries said the charge was one of the “few direct levers” ministers could pull to steady people’s mounting living costs.
The license fee, which is required to watch live television in the U.K. and access the BBC’s streaming service iPlayer, will be frozen at £159 until 2024, and will then rise in line with inflation for four years after that, Dorries said.
As Britain’s public service broadcaster, the BBC is funded by the fee. It will have to make cuts to its budget as a result of the decision.
Dorries told the House of Commons that, at a time of rising living costs, any increase in the fee would expose families to the potential threat of bailiffs knocking on their doors, or criminal prosecution.
“In the end …. we simply could not justify putting extra pressure on the wallets of hard-working households,” she added.
In a press release accompanying the announcement, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said that in light of the “huge changes in the broadcasting landscape” over the past decade, the government would separately “consider whether the license fee will remain a viable funding model for the BBC.”
It insisted: “No decision on the future of the licence fee has been made.”
Dorries had tweeted on Sunday that Monday’s license fee announcement would be the last and argued it was time “to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content.”
The U.K. government has come under fire over the timing of the announcement, which was briefed to the Mail on Sunday as Johnson faces growing pressure over a raft of allegations about lockdown-busting Whitehall parties.
Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell said the freeze was all about the government’s “long-standing vendetta” against the BBC. “Now it’s part of ‘operation red meat’ to stop the prime minister from becoming dead meat,” the Labour spokesperson said.
‘Operation Red Meat’ is a reference to a blitz of crowd-pleasing policy announcements reportedly planned for the next fortnight to win back the support of disillusioned Conservative MPs and voters in the wake of the ‘partygate’ scandal.