BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons has attacked Tory plans to freeze the licence fee, warning that political interference could harm the independence of the BBC’s journalism.
In a speech to the Royal Television Society this evening, Lyons promised to put up a fight ahead of a full Commons debate on the cost of the TV licence tomorrow afternoon.
Tory leader David Cameron announced in March that he wanted this year’s £3 rise in the TV licence to be scrapped and for the annual fee to be frozen at £139.50.
He said the corporation should “lead by example at a time when the whole country is tightening its belt”.
Lyons said tonight that he was worried that discussions about the future direction of the licence fee carried “potentially serious implications for the independence of the BBC”.
“The Trust will never allow any external interest, whether political, commercial, or from any other quarter, to exercise undue influence on the BBC’s editorial or operational independence,” Lyons said.
“The independence of the BBC is not a nice-to-have. It is absolutely central to everything the BBC stands for.”
Lyons said breaking the six-year settlement the BBC has win the government and moving towards an annual agreement would expose the BBC to increased political pressure.
“The traditional system underpins the BBC’s editorial independence,” he added. “It means that BBC journalists, for example, never have to trim to the short-term prevailing political wind in order to avoid upsetting the latest licence fee negotiation.
“It is very important that the BBC’s horizons do not become too closely entwined with the political cycle.”
He said this would move the balance of power “away from an editorially independent BBC and towards the inevitably political agendas of those who would have the final say in these frequent decisions over funding”.
The Tory motion to freeze the licence fee looks set to be defeated at tomorrow’s 90-minute debate in the Commons. Liberal Democrat shadow culture secretary Don Foster described it as a “cynical attempt to undermine funding for the BBC”.
“It’s pathetic that the most the Tories have to offer the public during the current recession is a licence fee cut of less than £3 a year,” he added.
Lyons also used tonight’s RTS speech to renew his criticism of calls to “top-slice” part of the core BBC licence fee and divert it towards other media outlets such as ITV or Channel 4.
“People would do well to remember that licence fee payers give us their money in good faith, believing it will be spent on BBC services and content,” Lyons said.
“To suddenly tell them midway through the settlement that their money is being siphoned off, as some have suggested it should be, would be more than an act of bad faith, it would be tantamount to breaking a contract.
“We know what the public would like to happen to any surplus. Ofcom’s own research shows this clearly. They’d like their money back.
He added: “Taking licence fee payers’ money and giving it to other causes and commercial players is wrong in principle. It undermines the BBC’s accountability to licence fee payers, and it risks compromising the BBC’s independence.”
Lord Carter’s final Digital Britain report, which will include recommendations to the government on the future of broadcasting and local news, is expected to be published on 16 June.