Boris Johnson has fired a warning shot at the BBC about its future funding after questioning the long-term viability of the TV licence fee.
The UK prime minister said on Monday that he was “certainly looking at” whether the national broadcaster should be funded by the public purse.
A Conservative party official confirmed Downing Street was looking at scrapping the £154.50 annual licence fee or decriminalising non-payment. Last year the licence fee raised £3.7bn for the BBC, about three-quarters of its revenue.
Asked by a worker at a haulage company in north-east England if his government would abolish the TV licence fee, Mr Johnson replied: “Well, I don’t think at this late stage in the campaign I’m going to make an unfunded spending commitment like that, but what I certainly think is that the BBC should cough up and pay for the licences for the over-75s as they promised to do.
“But at this stage we are not planning to get rid of all TV licence fees, though I am certainly looking at it.”
A TV licence is required to watch or record live programmes on any channel or use iPlayer, the BBC’s catch-up and on-demand service.
Mr Johnson added: “But you have to ask yourself whether that kind of approach to funding a TV, a media organisation still makes sense in the long term given the way other organisations manage to fund themselves — that’s all I will say.
“I think that the system of funding by what is effectively a general tax, isn’t it, everybody has a TV, it bears reflection — let me put it that way.
“How long can you justify a system whereby everybody who has a TV has to pay to fund a particular set of TV and radio channels — that is the question.”
The revelation comes after Mr Johnson, unlike all other big party leaders, ducked out of an interview with the BBC’s veteran presenter Andrew Neil ahead of the general election. The prime minister has insisted he has already put himself forward for unprecedented media scrutiny.
Mr Johnson has appeared on the campaign trail to be intent on taking down some of the UK’s oldest institutions.
The Conservative party manifesto contains a reference to the “need to look at broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts”.
The BBC has been in the line of fire since its decision this summer to cut free television licences for roughly two-thirds of pensioners, prompting a storm of anger over how it spends the money it receives from the public.
David Cameron’s Conservative government in 2015 announced the BBC would take on the whole cost of free licences for the over-75s, forecast to reach £745m by 2020-21. In exchange, the licence fee would increase in line with inflation and remain in place at least until 2027.
Tension surrounding future funding of the BBC increased when the Tory party was taken over by Mr Johnson in July, who this summer called it the “Brexit Bashing Corporation”.
“We have never had a prime minister who referred to the BBC like that,” said Claire Enders, founder of media research group Enders Analysis.
If Mr Johnson is returned to Downing Street on December 12 then the BBC is likely to come under more pressure. A few weeks ago, the prime minister threatened to “put the screws” on the BBC if it refused to fund free licences for all retirees.
Nicky Morgan, the outgoing culture secretary who is stepping down at the election, said earlier this year that she would consider scrapping the licence fee and replacing it with a Netflix-style subscription.