Ending free TV licences for the over-75s is Johnson's first step to dismantling the BBC

Polly Toynbee
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA</span>
Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

In the Polish election, the victor, President Andrzej Duda, seized control of the state broadcaster, TVP, for his onslaughts towards his liberal opponent, Rafal Trzaskowski. TVP ran relentless warnings that Trzaskowski would divert welfare money from Polish families to meet Jewish restitution claims. On its flagship news programme, 97% of items were overtly pro-Duda, while 87% were overtly negative to his challenger.

Imagine Dominic Cummings’ envy at this political grip on the equivalent of the BBC. Ever since Cummings’ New Frontiers Foundation blog posts pronounced “The BBC is a mortal enemy” it’s been plain he meant it: “The privileged closed world of the BBC needs to be turned upside down and its very existence should be the subject of a very intense and well-funded campaign … The right should be aiming for the end of the BBC in its current form and the legalisation of TV political advertising.” There’s plenty more where that came from as Boris Johnson echoed this long-held plan in his 2019 election threat to abolish the BBC licence fee.

From 1 August, the BBC will be sending people over 75 a letter requiring them to pay for TV licences, unless they are on pension credit. The government’s offloading of free licences for all over-75s would cost the BBC a devastating £1bn by 2023: as it is, shouldering those on pension credit will cost £125m this year. Rightwingers have been huffing up a storm about BBC callousness to the old, with bogus buck-passing by the secretary of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, who feels “let down” by the BBC, while Julian Knight, the Tory chair of the Commons culture select committee calls it “a body-blow” to pensioners. The government’s next assault is their proposal to decriminalise non-payment of the TV licence, effectively making it voluntary: consultation on this has ended. They hope the prospect of licence-refusing 80-year-olds in the dock will turn the public against the BBC. But at 43p a day what is better value?

Age UK is “bitterly disappointed with the BBC’s decision”, but rightly adds, “In reality the principal responsibility lies with the government.” Caroline Abraham, the charity’s chief executive, points to the two in five entitled to pension credit who never claim it, so will miss their free licence. She’s right: it’s shocking that these pensioners lose an average of £65 a week in credits. The government pretends it’s due to “pensioner pride”, but many are living with dementia, sick, can’t use computers and need personal help to claim. The state knows where they live as it pays their basic pension: it could easily commission Age UK and others to visit each one to ensure they get their credit, so let’s have no more ministerial crocodile tears until they find those missing claimants. Paying out those missing billions would cost the government far more than they’ve saved by offloading free TV licences onto the BBC.

These are just opening sallies. Expect the autumn to bring a full-blown assault on the BBC, already following Cummings’ plans for “the undermining of the BBC’s credibility”. No 10 will select a new BBC chair to take over in February: don’t expect anyone with good intent. Tim Davie, the next director general, safely chosen under the present chair, has a politically fireproof pedigree, with early Tory origins and a business background before the BBC; plus he has adroitly taken a hefty pay cut. Most importantly, he’s reputed to be a fighter ready to rally the country to defend the BBC.

Rational calculation would reckon this a bad time for No 10 to launch this culture war – but Cummings operates on anger not reason. The BBC has been more watched and loved than ever during the Covid-19 crisis. When lockdown was announced, 94% of the UK adult population used it in that third week of March, including 86% of 16- to 34-year-olds. Five million children set out on BBC Bitesize daily lessons in its first week, while its Culture in Quarantine virtual arts festivals have drawn in millions. Turning the BBC into a subscription service – the perpetual Murdoch press campaign – would put all that behind a paywall, and it would perish.

Related: The BBC will be attacked for charging over-75s licence fees. But it's not to blame | Jane Martinson

There are ample dazzling statistics to show how the BBC has been the nation’s unifier – apart from among the right’s fanatics who claim Netflix is all you need: in tough competition for eyeballs between online, social media, YouTube, shopping and searching, the BBC commands 24% of that time, but Netflix just 3% – yes, 3%. It’s not in the same game as a national broadcaster striving to provide everything citizens need. Damaging cuts have been forced since 2015: the country can ill afford the next round of BBC losses to regional news and national politics coverage. The more these essentials are cut, the weaker the case for the BBC’s unique role, a dangerous downward spiral.

With coronavirus still rampant and Brexit disasters fast approaching, the Cummings/Gove wreckers stampede ahead, roaring through the civil service, breaking things, sacking people, with nothing but proven incompetence at making anything work.

They may think demolishing the BBC an easy quick win. The public may have others ideas – but it will take rousing loud resistance, from the Ambridge shires to the EastEnders streets, from Radio 3 to Strictly and I May Destroy You fans. Out of Europe, friendless in the world where links with either China or the US look perilous, Britain needs all the soft power and cultural influence it can muster. These revolutionary vandals may find their patriotism questioned by their own heartlands when the BBC is often what wins Britain a punch-above-our-weight hearing around the world.

• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist