Ed Miliband: I'd defend the licence fee (but don't ask me to watch BBC news)

Ed Miliband has vowed to defend the BBC’s licence fee in the next parliament, but admitted he doesn’t watch the corporation’s news output.

The Labour leader said he believed the BBC provided a “benchmark for standards” in British media and helped to raise Britain’s profile around the world.

But with the current licence fee settlement due to come under review in the next parliament, the broadcaster has come under fire from Conservatives who accuse it of a liberal bias.

Tory ministers have even tried to decriminalise dodging the £145.50 licence fee, a move that opponents characterised as the first step towards abolishing the charge altogether, but were blocked in an 11th-hour move by the Lords.

In an interview with the Radio Times this week, Miliband indicated he would keep the BBC’s special status if handed the keys to No 10 after the next election.

“I am a supporter of the BBC and I think it should be renewed. I’m not going to get into the level, which will be a matter for negotiation and discussion,” he said. “I think it’s incredibly important that we protect the BBC. It’s recognised around the world and is a benchmark for standards in Britain.”

Miliband then appeared to admit that he didn’t watch the news. Asked whether he shouted at news bulletins about his party, Miliband said: “I tend not to watch the news, actually. That will sound a little strange. Look, I tend not to spend much time watching myself on TV.”

He quickly backtracked. “Obviously, I do watch the news,” he said. “But I tend not to shout at the screen.”

Miliband said the BBC needed to take the issue of management salaries seriously. But he said people’s frustrations with the broadcaster “doesn’t take away from its importance”.

And he said he would “have to be convinced” that alternative governance arrangements for the BBC were needed, despite even Rona Fairhead, the chair of the BBC Trust, saying her organisation should be replaced.

The BBC’s receipt of £3.5bn in annual funding from the licence fee has led to claims it enjoys a competitive advantage over commercial rivals such as ITV, Channel 5 and Sky. But it has fallen victim to coalition austerity measures, with the World Service losing funding from the Foreign Office and some licence fee cash diverted to a high-speed broadband roll-out programme.

BBC Trust vice-chair Diane Coyle said such “top-slicing” of the BBC’s budget was undermining its accountability and independence from the government.

Last month, Tory ministers were forced to abandon plans to decriminalise licence fee evasion, a crime of which 150,000 people are convicted every year. Despite a Commons vote last year backing plans to replace the criminal charge with a civil fine, peers blocked any changes to the system until April 2017.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Damien Gayle, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th April 2015 00.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010