Culture secretary tells Edinburgh TV festival his past criticism of BBC has been overstated and denies Rupert Murdoch has had a hand in licence fee changes.
Culture secretary John Whittingdale stepped away from some of his more robust criticisms of the BBC in a lively session at the TV Festival in Edinburgh during which he also denied that Rupert Murdoch had had any say in the recent decision to make the BBC responsible for financing free licence fees for the over-75s.
Repeatedly pressed by Alastair Stewart on comments he made before he was given his current role by David Cameron earlier this year, Whittingdale said he had rethought some positions while other criticisms had been misinterpreted or exaggerated.
Clearly seeking a reconciliatory tone, Whittingdale acknowledged that the need to participate in spending cuts had been "tough on the BBC" but as the newly-elected government's most urgent priority is to "put the economy right" the corporation "has no 'get-out clause' from the need for all public bodies to save money".
He said he was "unaware" of any contact between Rupert Murdoch and George Osborne ahead of the over-75s decision which was equivalent to a cut of £750m but said it was absurd to suggest Murdoch was dictating strategy from New York.
Dismissing previous criticisms of populist programming, he said he had come to recognise the value of 'Strictly Come Dancing' but indicated he was still troubled by the BBC's decision to get in a bidding war with ITV for 'The Voice'. Having previously said that he didn't think the corporation needed to be "all things to all people" he declined to condemn any specfic programme and repeatedly pointed out that it was for the BBC to decide what it broadcast.
Alarm bells may be ringing in some quarters at his response to questions about the possible foreign ownership of ITV as he said "he wouldn't run to the hills" if it became partially owned by the US and, similarly, he pointed out that the government didn't need to own Channel 4 in order to set its remit.
Asked whether he thought the BBC has a left-leaning bias, he offered a conciliatory 'no' while reminding broadcasters of the need to ensure impartiality. Whittingdale bridled at any suggestion that - as a former member of Margaret Thatcher's political team - he had "unfinished business with the BBC"; and in any case, he said he felt it was important to create a firewall between the debate about the BBC's charter and any political concerns anyone might have about its news coverage.
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