Entertainment & Arts

Newspapers 'entitled' to concern over BBC news online

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionBBC licence fee not settled says culture secretary

The culture secretary has said newspapers are "entitled" to concern over the BBC's online news operation.

John Whittingdale said the BBC should "look at online provision and say: 'Is this simply making available the kind of provision we have traditionally done on broadcast media?'"

Last week, a BBC Trust report said the corporation does not "crowd out" rival TV channels or local newspapers.

It blamed the recession and rise in internet usage for falling revenues.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's The Media Show, Mr Whittingdale said of the BBC news website: "If they are going to... provide news content that looks like newspapers - that's where I think newspapers are entitled to express concern."

Mr Whittingdale was being quizzed on the review of the BBC's royal charter, which is due to expire at the end of 2016.

He reiterated that the future level of the BBC licence fee is not settled and is "dependent on the outcome of charter review".

Mr Whittingdale said it was "an open question" as the size and scope of the BBC was being considered as part of charter renewal.

But BBC director of strategy James Purnell said they had an agreement "absent to fundamental change".

The BBC's current royal charter is due to expire at the end of 2016.

'Full public consultation'

In July it was announced that the BBC would take on the £608m cost of free TV licences for people over the age of 75.

In return the government promised to allow the £145.50 fee to increase in line with inflation and close a loophole that made it possible to watch on-demand television without a licence.

At the time, ministers said the move would be phased in from 2018-19.

But Mr Whittingdale said: "What happened in July was not the licence fee settlement.

"We've made it quite clear that the decision as to the future level of the licence fee is connected with charter review, where we are having a full public consultation in which everybody is invited to express a view.

"The decision taken in July was about the necessity of getting down the amount of government spending particularly in the welfare budget and it was the case that the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) was having to write, every year, a very sizable cheque to the BBC to compensate them for free TV licences for those over 75.

"So it was understandable that the chancellor, who was looking to find savings in the welfare budget, would regard that as a legitimate area to ask for savings to be made."

In response, shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher said: "The BBC negotiated the recent licence fee deal with the Government in good faith, but now it appears the Culture Secretary is preparing to renege on the agreement.

"This is yet further evidence that the Government is planning to pull the rug out from under the BBC and represents another attack on the corporation. What has the Government got against the BBC?"

The BBC licence fee of £145.50 has been frozen for seven years.

"Our understanding is that quite properly if the government tried to change the BBC then of course the money would need to be looked at again," Mr Purnell said.

"If there is an intention to have a different licence fee settlement after that... I think we would have a hard think about that.

"We have reached an agreement to our finances absent to fundamental change.

"If the government decides it wants to have a further licence fee discussion you would have to look at all of the elements which were up for grabs, both extra costs and extra income, and so you would have to start again."

More on this story