The decision in October 2010 on the licence fee was taken in an unprecedented fashion – without the normal process of public scrutiny – and behind closed doors.
It was announced not by the Secretary of State for the DCMS in the normal manner – but by George Osborne in a House of Commons statement on the Comprehensive Spending Review.
David Cameron said the decision to freeze the licence fee for 6 years was “delicious”. No doubt, those at the top of the Murdoch empire shared the Prime Minister’s delight.
This overt politicisation of the BBC – treating an independent body governed by Royal Charter as if it was just another spending department in Whitehall – is causing deep damage to the Corporation.
As a consequence, the NUJ BBC London Branch Committee have wriiten to Mark Thompson:
We are writing to ask what action you are planning to take given the evidence of collusion that has emerged from the Leveson inquiry between staff at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Murdoch business empire over the proposed takeover of BSkyB.
As you know, the Leveson inquiry has turned up evidence that appears to show DCMS staff acting in the interests of Rupert Murdoch in precisely the period when the DCMS was also engaged in setting the licence fee. Rupert Murdoch's written evidence to the enquiry reveals that 'I have recently been told that my son James discussed certain BBC issues with Jeremy Hunt, both before and after the 2010 General Election.' It is common knowledge that Murdoch executives have wanted cuts in the licence fee; and there is a documented history of ministers reflecting Murdoch priorities in their policy statements.
Taken together, this evidence indicates the possibility that the damaging freeze in BBC finances – an effective cut – imposed by the 2010 licence fee settlement resulted partly from influence exerted on DCMS by the Murdoch empire.
We are certain that BBC management will be as keen to see this investigated as we are, given the scale of the cutbacks stemming from a licence fee settlement which you yourself described as "tough". If it were found that DCMS staff did not act independently in this matter, the BBC would be entitled – indeed, obliged – to demand a review of the settlement. This could potentially lift the axe hanging over several arms of BBC output, avoid some of the worst cuts under DQF, and allow the BBC to offer salary and pensions settlements that remove the possibility of industrial action.
We are therefore asking you to call publicly for the matter to be investigated, by:
- writing to the Leveson inquiry asking it to probe possible Murdoch influence on DCMS over the BBC licence fee;
- a request to DCMS – backed up, if necessary, by an FoI request – for the release of all documents, emails and records of communication between the Murdoch empire and DCMS over this issue;
- a public letter in the press expressing your concern.
In doing so, you would be supported by MPs who have tabled a Commons motion requesting the Prime Minister to ensure that details of communications between the Murdoch empire and DCMS are made public.
We urge you to act without delay, to defend the BBC, its employees and its services to the public.
On behalf of the BBC London Branch Committee
National Union of Journalists