With the race to replace Boris Johnson as next UK Prime Minister now down to the final two, bosses at BBC New Broadcasting House and Channel 4 Horseferry Road will be examining former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s record on public broadcasting in minute detail.
Both broadcasters took a battering from Johnson’s firebrand Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, via a recently announced review into the future of the BBC licence fee and, more existentially, legislation to privatize Channel 4. The pubcasters will now be hoping these drastic moves can be reversed.
Of concern to the BBC, however, Politico reported last week that Sunak has said in private that he would be willing to scrap the £159 ($190) per year annual licence fee and look to alternative funding models when the BBC Charter expires in 2027. BBC bosses have said they are open to new models and are due to set out the principles of future funding in the coming weeks but losing a guaranteed £3.8B ($4.6B) a year would be a blow.
During his seven years as an MP, Sunak has said little about the BBC in parliament, bar taking the time to praise stalwart BBC presenters Julia Bradbury and Eric Robson in a debate about coastal walks soon after he was elected.
Both Sunak and Truss are free marketeers, a political ideology that does not lend itself to well-funded public broadcasting. And both are admirers of Margaret Thatcher, who was a BBC sceptic throughout her 11-year reign.
Since the war in Ukraine started, Truss has, however, taken the time to praise BBC News on several occasions for its ability to inform and counter fake news narratives from state-sponsored organizations such as Russia’s RT.
“It is absolutely right to talk about the importance of the BBC in communicating to the Russian people,” she said during a recent debate.
The pair will go head-to-head in a BBC debate Monday, while being interviewed individually by Today presenter Nick Robinson over the coming weeks.
The candidates have kept their public powder dry on Channel 4 privatization so far.
As Chancellor, however, Sunak’s department would have signed off the plan to sell the broadcaster, which started its journey through Parliament in May. Sunak’s Treasury previously said it could raise around £1B ($1.2B) for the sale.
He has raised no public objections to the move, although may want to listen to recent polling that put Channel 4 privatization bottom of the list of Conservative voters’ priorities.
Truss has also remained quiet on Channel 4, although again her penchant for free market economics may not exactly endear her to the stereotypically liberally-minded network.
The candidate who almost pipped Truss to the final two, Penny Mordaunt, was generally seen as the most likely to reverse privatization and had praised the broadcaster in parliament before.
Johnson’s resignation put paid to the start of the BBC licence fee review and a parliamentary debate on Channel 4, which were supposed to take place this week, and the broadcasters will now be listening closely to any signs from the campaign trail that their future could be better secured under a Sunak or Truss-led government.
The next General Election is due in 20 months and, by then, Sunak or Truss may have been the overseers of some of the biggest changes to British public broadcasting for a generation.