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May 11, 2015

A ‘declaration of war’ on the BBC? Tories name John Whittingdale as new Culture Secretary

By William Turvill

John Whittingdale (pictured, Reuters), the Conservative chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has been appointed as the new Culture Secretary.

He replaces Sajid Javid, who has moved to become Business Secretary after more than a year in the job. Javid replaced Maria Miller in the position last April.

Whittingdale has been chair of his committee since 2005 and was previously a shadow culture secretary.

His appointment as Culture Secretary has been described as an "effective declaration of war" on the BBC by The Daily Telegraph's chief political correspondent Christopher Hope.

Meanwhile, James Chapman, the political editor of the Daily Mail, tweeted this morning: "Senior Tories told me PM angry about BBC coverage of campaign. But I didn't believe he was as cross as Whittingdale's appointment suggests."

Last October, Whittingdale was quoted as describing the BBC licence fee as a “poll tax”, adding: “It’s actually worse than the poll tax because with the poll tax, if you were on a very low income, you got a considerable subsidy, you only paid 20 per cent.

“With the licence fee there is no means-tested assistance whatsoever, it doesn’t matter how poor you are, you still have to pay £145.50 and go to prison if you don’t pay it, and a lot of people go to prison every year because they can’t afford the fines imposed on them.”

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And in February, Whittingdale’s committee told the BBC in a report that  it "must not expect to receive others’ news content without providing something in return".

Whittingdale said at the time that the BBC had "suffered from a succession of disasters of its own making" over recent years but it "remains a widely admired and trusted institution".

He said: "In the short-term, there appears to be no realistic alternative to the licence fee, but that model is becoming harder and harder to justify and sustain."

He added: "The BBC has tried for too long to be all things to all people – with the rapid changes in communication and media technology and markets and changing audience needs and behaviours, this no longer works."

In its manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to offer journalists “explicit protection” under the British Bill of Rights, which it wants to replace the Human Rights Act.

Unlike Labour, the Tories have not committed to imposing the recommendations of the Leveson report and have made no mention of media ownership.

The party, meanwhile, reiterated its backing of Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign – saying police forces should be banned from accessing journalistic phone records without judicial approval – and confirmed its plan to hold a consultation on "the introduction of a business rates relief for local newspapers in England".

On press regulation, the Conservative manifesto said: “We will continue to defend hard-won liberties and the operation of a free press. But alongside the media’s rights comes a clear responsibility, which is why we set up the public, judge-led Leveson Inquiry in response to the phone-hacking scandal, created a new watchdog by Royal Charter and legislated to toughen media libel laws.”

Under the heading "We will defend press freedom", it added: “Because the work of the free press is so important we will offer explicit protection for the role of journalists via the British Bill of Rights and we will ban the police from accessing journalists’ phone records to identify whistleblowers and other sources without prior judicial approval.”

On the regional press, the Tory manifesto said: “Local newspapers are an important source of information for local communities and a vital part of a healthy democracy. To support them as they adapt to new technology and changing circumstances, we will consult on the introduction of a business rates relief for local newspapers in England.”

The Conservative manifesto also promised a “comprehensive review of the BBC Royal Charter, ensuring it delivers value for money for the licence fee payer, while maintaining a world class service and supporting our creative industries”.

It said: “That is why we froze the BBC licence fee and will keep it frozen, pending Charter renewal. And we will continue to ‘topslice’ the licence fee for digital infrastructure to support superfast broadband across the country.”

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