Sunday 15 December 2019 4:14 pm

Boris Johnson sets sights on BBC licence fee as bias row heats up

Boris Johnson is reportedly ramping up plans to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee, in a move that could spark a showdown between No 10 and the broadcaster.

The Prime Minister has asked aides to launch an urgent review into whether viewers should face prosecution for failing to pay the £154.50 fee, which applies to both live TV and catch-up shows on iPlayer.

Read more: BBC licence fee could be scrapped, Boris Johnson hints

The move, first reported by the Sunday Telegraph, threatens to hamstring the broadcaster’s funding and escalate an ongoing dispute between Downing Street and the corporation.

Johnson last week hinted that he may scrap the licence fee, describing it as “effectively a general tax”, while senior No 10 aides have ramped up their attack on the BBC over perceived bias in the corporation’s election coverage.

Tory ministers were pulled from Radio 4’s flagship Today programme yesterday and on Friday, and the party is reportedly considering withdrawing from future broadcasts.

The two sides locked horns on several occasions during the election campaign, with tensions reaching fever pitch over Johnson’s refusal to be interviewed by Andrew Neil and reporters incorrectly stating that a Labour activist punched a Tory aide.

The BBC has furiously denied accusations of bias, with senior figures such as director general Tony Hall and director of news Fran Unsworth penning impassioned defences of the broadcaster’s impartiality.

The corporation has also dismissed the notion of replacing the licence fee with a Netflix-style subscription model, and hit back at the prospect of decriminalising non-payment.

A spokesperson said: “The government has already commissioned a QC to take an in-depth look at this matter and he found that ‘the current system of criminal deterrence and prosecution should be maintained’ and that it is fair and value for money to licence fee payers. 

“The review also found that non-payment cases accounted for ‘a minute fraction’ – only 0.3 per cent – of court time.”

The spokesperson added that decriminalisation would strip at least £200m from the BBC’s budget for programmes and services.

It comes amid speculation over who Johnson will choose to replace Nicky Morgan as culture secretary – a role that includes oversight of the BBC.

Read more: John McDonnell says Boris Johnson is ‘playing’ the BBC

The Mail on Sunday reported that the Prime Minister is considering appointing Tory grandee John Whittingdale, a former chair of the culture committee and vocal licence fee critic.

Brexiter Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who sat on the board of the official Vote Leave campaign, has also been tipped as a potential successor.