The UK government on Wednesday served notice on the BBC that it should not expect automatic renewal of its charter when this expires in 2006.

Addressing a media conference in Oxford, the secretary for culture, media and sport Tessa Jowell made it clear that renewal of the charter would not be automatic, warning the BBC it will have to justify its existence and its activities.

“Charter renewal gives us the opportunity to look at the heart of the public service broadcasting system ... [the BBC] must be able to justify to its audience that it uses their money, and earns their support, by offering services that extend the range and enhance the standards of what is available,” she said.

Jowell did not tell the broadcaster to cease its competitive incursions into the commercial arena – although few will doubt this to have been the hidden text of her message following persistent howls of protest from ITV and other ratings-reliant broadcasters.

The BBC’s £112 ($180; €170) annual licence fee – its primary source of funding – is levied on all British viewers whether or not they watch its programmes, and is a political hot potato. After seeming to defend the licence fee concept last year, secretary Jowell was forced to duck hastily beneath the parapet.

Since then, government ‘sources’ have repeatedly insisted that the Blair administration is not opposed to scrapping the licence fee and that the case for its retention would be “tested to destruction”. Ministers concede, however, that opponents of the fee have yet to come up with a better alternative.

The formal charter review procedure which commences in 2004 will be “far reaching and substantial”. In broad terms it will examine value for money and the originality of programmes. It will also put Freeview, the BBC’s new multichannel digital service, under the microscope to ensure its conforms to the detailed schedules agreed with the government.

Data sourced from:; additional content by WARC staff