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British culture secretary Nadine Dorries has confirmed plans first reported over the weekend to freeze the BBC license fee — the flat fee most U.K. households must pay to use the public service broadcaster — for two years.
In a statement made on Monday in parliament in London, she stopped short of saying the fee would be scrapped altogether, which had been suggested in the original report, claiming a “review” into the BBC’s license fee funding model would begin soon.
The BBC and the license fee have become something of a political battleground in recent years, with the corporation’s output regularly attacked by members of the Conservative government for what they claim is a left-wing bias (a factor disputed by many on the left, who, among many examples, point to the fact the current director-general Tim Davie once stood as a Conservative councillor). But the argument rose to heightened levels over the weekend when Dorries tweeted a Daily Mail article about the plans, adding that: “The license fee announcement will be the last. The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences are over. Time now to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content.”
The timing of the announcement has been picked up upon across the media. Prime minister Boris Johnson is currently facing the biggest test of his leadership, with ever-growing stories of illegal parties taking place during lockdown at his residence at Number 10 Downing Street pushing his approval ratings to record lows. Many Conservative MPs have joined the chorus of politicians calling on him to resign, and this latest attack on the BBC — led by Johnson supporter Dorries — is seen as a way of shoring up vital support at his time of need while also diverting headlines away from his own scandals.
In retaliation, many high-profile figures from the U.K.’s screen sector — including Hugh Grant, Veep creator Armando Iannucci and Succession writer Lucy Prebble — have rallied behind the BBC, tweeting their support for the broadcaster and aiming to highlight the value for money that the license fee, current set at £159.50 ($218) annually, brings in terms of the breadth of output across TV and radio.
The BBC is currently in the midst of negotiating the next five years of the license fee and has made it clear that, with skyrocketing production costs and the dramatic increased spend of streamers in the U.K., anything other than a rise in line with inflation would result in major cuts to its output and staff levels.
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