Senior Tory MP Damian Green has warned Boris Johnson’s government to “stop the BBC bashing” after ministers threatened a shake-up of the licence fee.
The former first secretary of state, who was a close ally of Theresa May’s, strongly defended the public service broadcaster in an article for Conservative Home, saying “a weaker BBC would mean a weaker British culture”.
It comes after culture secretary Nicky Morgan announced ministers were considering decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee, which BBC bosses fear could cost the corporation £200m a year as the payment would effectively become voluntary.
Morgan said in a speech on Monday it was time to think about keeping the fee “relevant” in a “changing media landscape”.
Johnson’s top team, which has clashed with the media several times recently, also appear to be boycotting flagship political programmes, such as Radio 4’s Today and BBC Two’s Newsnight.
But Green, who is chair of the one-nation caucus of Conservative MPs, has said the “season of BBC bashing” is “particularly ill-timed” as the UK tries to promote the country post-Brexit, claiming the broadcaster is a “cherished” and “uniquely British” institution which is admired around the world.
The BBC has faced claims from people both on the left and right of the political spectrum that it is biased, with December’s general election intensifying pressure on editors.
It comes as US trade negotiators are thought to want an end to special treatment for public broadcasters, with the US Chamber of Commerce demanding “no culture carve-out” for the BBC.
The public consultation was announced by Morgan over the sanctions for evading the licence fee, which increases to £157.50 in April.
As it stands, prosecution for non-payment of the levy can end in a court appearance and a potential fine of up to £1,000. Anyone who refuses to pay the fine faces jail.
Green said it was “sensible” to review the licence fee level but urged his Tory colleagues to rethink targeting the broadcaster too heavily, saying it “provides the backbone of broadcast reporting in our thankfully robust political culture”.
He said: “That’s an essential part of a democracy. And we should remember that, for all the debate swirling around Westminster, the BBC is still the news source that the country uses and trusts the most.”
He also cautioned against comparisons with subscription services such as Netflix, claiming they “don’t really stand up to much scrutiny”.
He concluded: “You can find the BBC at times enraging, arrogant and extravagant. But a weaker BBC would mean a weaker British culture – and no Conservative can seriously want that.”
The BBC has said a 2015 review found the current system to be the fairest.
The consultation, which will last eight weeks with the government publishing its response this summer, will also look at the viability of an alternative enforcement scheme.