Belfast Telegraph

Government to blame for TV licence fee withdrawal, says BBC boss

The corporation has been widely criticised for its decision to restrict free licences for over-75s to those who claim pension credit.

Tony Hall (Guy Levy/BBC/PA)
Tony Hall (Guy Levy/BBC/PA)

The BBC’s director-general has said the corporation would be “open to conversation” should the Government want to discuss the funding of TV licences for the over-75s.

The funding of free licences is due to be transferred from the Government to the BBC next year as part of an agreement hammered out in 2015.

From June 1 2020, free licences will be restricted to over-75s who claim pension credit, a move which the BBC has been widely criticised for.

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Top 10 highest BBC on-air salaries 2018/19. See story MEDIA BBC. Infographic from PA Graphics

Speaking as the corporation unveiled its annual report, Tony Hall said the decision taken by the BBC was not an easy one.

He said: “Let’s start by remind ourselves who is responsible, it is the Government who is withdrawing their funding of the over 75s, they decided on that in the full knowledge, let me say, that reform was a possible outcome.

“So the suggestion that somehow we are not keeping to a settlement agreement or we’re doing something we shouldn’t be doing, is just wrong.

“Let me just emphasise two facts.

“One, we have it in writing from the Government and indeed by law, that we should consult and decide what is best from June 2020 onwards.

“We had the power to make that decision.

“Second, I was really impressed in the debate in the Commons the day after we announced this reform, from John Whittingdale, the culture secretary at the time, who said that it was understood at the time that this, i.e. reform, would be a possible outcome.

“And Ed Vaizey then followed and said either take back this policy or support the BBC changes.

“So in my mind it’s quite clear where the decision-making for this lies.

“Do I sympathise and empathise with those who are being asked to pay for this from next June? Of course we all do.

“This was a really hard decision balancing on the one hand the obvious desire to do right by those over 75 versus, on the other, to do right by those who are paying the licence fee and don’t want to see their services cut”.

TV stars including former Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman and Dame Esther Rantzen have been vocal in their criticism of the BBC’s decision.

A petition started by Age UK to “demand the Government takes back responsibility for funding free TV licences for everyone over 75” has as of today received more than 590,000 signatures.

Asked about Boris Johnson’s description of the BBC as the Brexit Bashing Corporation and bias in coverage, he said: “The BBC is doing a fantastic job in describing to the public the choices being made on their behalf about Brexit”.

Prior to that, he added: “I look forward to meeting whoever is prime minister or whoever is culture secretary and talking about the BBC issues.

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John Whittingdale was referenced in Lord Hall’s press conference over the BBC’s annual report (PA).

“But to be clear what you’ve heard is… you have a choice, we’ve made our choice, we were allowed by law to make that choice from next year, and we’ve decided the fairest way (of) balancing what’s fair to pensioners over 75 versus cuts we do not want to make in our services, we’ve gone for this which is effectively means testing.

“If they want to come back and say we’ll pay you for the over-75s concession we got it wrong- fine.

“I can’t see, in all the public spending commitments being made, that happening, but we’re open to conversation”.

Following the release of the report, Tom Watson, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, said in a statement on Labour’s website: “The BBC continues to provide some of the public’s best-loved programmes and is making progress to better represent all parts of our society and close the gender and BAME pay gaps.

“The BBC is adapting to the digital age.

“The Government must ensure that can continue by supporting public service broadcasters to compete on a level playing field with tech giants such as YouTube and Netflix.

“The Government left the BBC in an impossible position over free TV licences.

“The Tories should honour their manifesto pledge and step in provide funding to save free TV licences.

“Not to do so is a disservice to our oldest citizens and to the BBC.”

PA

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