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The BBC Is Our Cultural NHS - The Government Must Tread Warily If They Seek to Cut It Down to Size

16/07/2015 16:10 BST | Updated 16/07/2016 10:59 BST

John Whittingdale was in emollient, consensual mood today in the Commons. Back to his old pre-Government style. But nobody who cares for the future of the BBC should be lulled into a false sense of security. The Tory plan is still exactly what it always was, to limit the BBC, to cut it down to size. Time after time he referred to a root branch review of the BBC. Time and again he questioned the universal principle at the heart of the BBC licence fee, namely that everyone pays in so everyone should get something out of it. I lost count of the number of times he suggested that there will come a time when the BBC should be put on a subscription footing and repeated that it was only because it wasn't yet possible technically that it wasn't happening now.

When you consider that this review comes hot on the heels of the BBC being forced at point blank range to take on the full £750million a year cost of the free TV licences for the over 75s, it's difficult not to be sceptical. And when you consider that instead of setting up a cross-party review panel as has happened previously, he has merely gathered an advisory panel stuffed with people with direct financial interests in the BBC's commercial competitors it is difficult not to smell a very Tory rat.

The truth is the BBC is our cultural NHS. The public love it and want it to inform educate and entertain - and yes, that includes making Strictly, Top Gear, The Voice and the Great British Bake-Off. It drives up standards and boosts investment. It's a beacon of accuracy and impartiality around the world. It's not just part of the national furniture, it's our greatest cultural institution. It's a miracle of constitutional engineering, independent of government, yet funded by the public. It is the cornerstone of our creative industries, earning respect and money for Britain and British values. Which is why it would be profoundly unpatriotic and downright un-conservative to seek to diminish the BBC and thereby diminish Britain.

Of course there are some things we can all agree on. The BBC always needs reform. It needs to represent the full diversity of modern Britain better. And the Trust is bust. These three weeks prove it. Either the Chair lip syncs the director-general or she undermines him. But whatever the new structure the BBC is not a government plaything, nor should it be a branch of the Department for Work and Pensions. It belongs to licence fee payers and the public should have a say in its future.

The whole point of the BBC is that politicians should only meddle with it on very rare occasions. Yes, it is accountable to the public through parliament, and yes the charter renewal process gives ministers a moment of great power over the Corporation. But we should remain worried about Whittingdale's self-confessed free market conservativeness. With power comes responsibility and he should tread warily if he seeks to limit or cut the BBC down to size.

Chris Bryant is the Labour MP for Rhondda and shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport