The BBC must not be diminished amid a “growing battle” for global influence and attempts at “democratic disruption”, the broadcaster’s chairman has said.
Sir David Clementi said that the BBC would no longer be the public service the nation “knows and values” if it went behind a paywall.
He also spoke against the possible decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, saying licence fee payers would be “the ultimate losers”.
Sir David cited the broadcaster’s influence around the world.
Of the World Service, he said: “As a public service broadcaster, not a state broadcaster, it has been a beacon of journalistic impartiality and a lifeline for millions living in fear, uncertainty, or captivity worldwide.”
There is a “growing battle for global influence in which news provision has emerged as a key weapon”, he said.
“The BBC’s main competitors are the well-funded, state-backed actors of Russia and China who see news as an extension of state influence and a tool for democratic disruption,” Sir David said in a speech in MediaCity, Salford.
“China continues to build a communications infrastructure across Africa that will beam Chinese-produced content directly into millions of African homes. It has been described as a stroke of soft-power genius.
“Meanwhile, RT’s (formerly Russia Today’s) coverage of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury is a prime example of how hard Russia works to undermine reports from the West and sow mistrust in democratic institutions worldwide.
“The next few years will decide which competing vision of the future of news will triumph, the state-controlled or the fair and free.”
The basic World Service has been funded by the BBC from the licence fee, with £250 million, since 2010.
The Government gave the BBC additional funds to increase the service, “recognising the role the BBC has played in enhancing Britain’s reputation and influence around the world” Sir David said, three years ago.
This had delivered “for communities across the world” and deepened “Britain’s democratic influence,” he said.
Sir David also hit back at suggestions that the BBC had agreed to fund the free TV licence for over-75s as part of negotiations with the Government.
“There was no agreement, as is often claimed, that the BBC would simply copy the Government’s concession,” he said.
“A whole raft of observers, politicians, commentators and journalists, who were nowhere near the 2015 Agreement at the time but would like to put blame on the BBC, keep insisting that something else was agreed – and that the BBC has not honoured this ‘something else’.”
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan signalled the possible end of the TV licence fee, which underpins funding of the almost 100-year-old broadcaster.
Sir David said that “critics of the licence fee need to think much harder about what the BBC, funded through a voluntary subscription, would look like”.
And he added: “I have no doubt that the BBC could thrive as a subscription model. But it would not be the BBC that the nation knows and values and, behind a paywall, it would not be available to everyone.”
He said: “Sitting behind a paywall, it would no longer be the place that brings the country together – for the Strictly final, or Gavin & Stacey on Christmas Day, or the Armistice Anniversary or Holocaust Memorial.
“Nor would it be the place that all could turn to celebrate live important moments we enjoy as a nation: Royal Weddings or Jubilees, or Olympic successes.”
The appointment of a new director general, following the decision of Lord Hall to stand down, was a matter for the BBC Board “alone”, Sir David added.
He also spoke against the possible decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, after the Government launched a consultation, saying ” it would be likely to cost the BBC hundreds of millions of pounds – making licence fee payers the ultimate losers.”