back to top

How The BBC Is Fighting Back In The Licence Fee Media War

The BBC's Royal Charter is due for renewal in 2016 and its opponents are adamant the corporation's £3.6 billion budget should be slashed. But Auntie isn't taking it lying down.

Posted on

Earlier this month, The Sun published an investigation into "shocking waste" at the BBC, the latest in a string of stories about the corporation's alleged excesses.

The paper said 91 managers at the BBC earned more than the prime minister's annual £142,500 salary and that as many as 250 star actors and presenters earn more than £250,000.

A spokesman for the TaxPayers' Alliance, a ubiquitous voice in stories about BBC largesse, said: "Hard-pressed licence-fee payers will be baffled that bosses at the Beeb are apparently more valuable than the man in Downing Street."

The BBC is a frequent target for the right-leaning Sun, as it is for the Daily Mail. And according to The Telegraph, the Tories are "at war" with the BBC.

But instead of sitting back and taking the criticism, the BBC press office responded on Twitter with this fact-checking image, which was retweeted 2,300 times.

Last week also saw the corporation come under heavy fire from the government for its coverage of the crucial Autumn Statement.

The chancellor, George Osborne, accused the BBC of "hyperbole" in its coverage of the government's attempts to reduce the budget deficit.

He was speaking on the Today programme on Radio 4, not long after BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith referred to the statement as a "book of doom" and described the scale of spending cuts laid out by the Office for Budget Responsibility as "utterly terrifying".

He invoked George Orwell's 1937 study of northern industrial poverty, The Road to Wigan Pier.

Osborne, struggling to keep his temper on the BBC radio show, said:

I would have thought the BBC had learned from the past four years that its totally hyperbolic coverage of spending cuts has not been matched by what's happened.

Even the prime minister got involved, his spokesman telling reporters:

I don't think that they [the BBC] help us have what is important here, which is a clear and sensible and measured debate about the decisions that both are being taken and need to be taken in the future.

This could be seen as yet another spat between the government and the UK's flagship political news radio programme.

But, again, the BBC fought back. It may have sent stuff like this to journalists in the past, but now sends it to its 90,000 Twitter followers.

There has been some discussion about our coverage of #AutumnStatement on Today and elsewhere. Here is our response:

BBC News Press Team@BBCNewsPRFollow

There has been some discussion about our coverage of #AutumnStatement on Today and elsewhere. Here is our response:

6:41 PM - 04 Dec 14ReplyRetweetFavorite

The BBC is borrowing the "rapid rebuttal" PR tactics of Alastair Campbell's New Labour media operation – and has been hiring from the world of PR to make it happen.

Led by John Shield, the director of communications, who joined in November 2013 on a £144,000-a-year salary, the BBC's press team is now getting on the front foot and using social media to debunk or offer perspective to its critics' attacks.

Both Shield and head of press Jonathan Reed joined from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), a government department that has developed a fiercely energetic press strategy.

The DWP's director of communications, Richard Caseby, a former executive at The Sun and the Sunday Times, wrote a lengthy opinion piece in May criticising The Guardian's coverage of welfare reform, a highly irregular move for a senior civil servant.

The BBC's communications are overseen by James Purnell, a former adviser to Tony Blair and a culture secretary in Gordon Brown's Labour government.

But it's not just rapid rebuttal: The BBC knows the starting gun has been fired on the debate over the future of the licence fee and it needs to influence people too.

.@BBC now vs. 20 years ago. What the licence fee got you then; what it gets you now. More >


.@BBC now vs. 20 years ago. What the licence fee got you then; what it gets you now. More >

3:05 PM - 27 Nov 14ReplyRetweetFavorite

The BBC's charter is up for renewal in 2016 and its management are keen to illustrate where the mandatory annual £145.50 licence fee goes.

.@BBC Finance chief Anne Bulford: We’ve made great strides in becoming more efficient.

BBC Press Office@bbcpressFollow

.@BBC Finance chief Anne Bulford: We’ve made great strides in becoming more efficient.

3:45 PM - 27 Nov 14ReplyRetweetFavorite

The BBC is also talking up its efficiency plans and aims to save an extra £400 million from its entire budget from the 2016/7 budget, taking total savings to £1.5 billion since the start of the charter period in 2006.

There has been an implicit threat to the BBC in the language of some Conservative politicians as the conversation over its future intensified.

Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps, a long-term critic of the corporation who's already warned that it faces a smaller budget, said last week: "With an election approaching, it is vitally important that the BBC adheres to the highest standard of editorial impartiality."

But Conor Burns, Tory MP for Bournemouth West and a member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, went further:

Any ideas that a future Conservative government would undo the National Health Service or undo the welfare state could have consequences of sending voters into the arms of Labour and that would be more than unfortunate, it would be deeply unprofessional for our national broadcaster.

Our national broadcaster that wanted its charter renewed in 2016 will be under even more scrutiny than normal.

The BBC said in a statement: "We'll undoubtedly get more criticism across the political spectrum as the election gets closer, but we'll keep doing our job."

This tough language is to be expected so close to an election in such an unpredictable political landscape.

And this isn't necessarily a Conservatives vs BBC issue, more one of the government of the day consistently using the BBC as a political punchbag.

At the height of the bitter fall-out from the Today programme's "dodgy dossier" report in 2003, Alastair Campbell said "the BBC's standards are debased beyond belief."

But what is clear is that the BBC is uncomfortable being painted as a scapegoat for negative public opinion. As one senior member of the BBC press team put it to BuzzFeed News last week: "Why should we take this stuff lying down?"

Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Patrick Smith at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.