Crowdfunding donors give thousands to ‘defund BBC’ lobby group

A piece in today’s Times:

An anti-BBC campaign group founded by Brexiteers has raised nearly £60,000 in crowdfunding donations as it pushes for radical reform of the licence fee.

Defund the BBC has already bought billboard and Facebook adverts highlighting the national broadcaster’s spending excesses. It plans to capitalise on public anger around this week’s BBC “rich list”, including Zoe Ball’s £1 million pay rise, to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds more to escalate its lobbying efforts.

The group is fronted by telegenic young conservative activists, including Darren Grimes, the 27-year-old pro-Brexit campaigner recently cleared of committing electoral offences during the EU referendum, and Calvin Robinson, a former Brexit Party parliamentary candidate.

Its listed founder is James Yucel, 18, treasurer of the University of Glasgow Conservative Association. However, the group’s day-to-day activities are led by Rebecca Ryan, 43, an experienced digital marketer who previously masterminded the #StandUp4Brexit campaign, which put pressure on MPs to oppose Theresa May’s Chequers deal.

She identified the broadcaster’s coverage of Black Lives Matter — specifically a headline on the BBC News website that read: “27 police officers injured during largely peaceful anti-racism protests” — as the catalyst for the challenge to the corporation’s funding model from right-wing activists.

A “Defund The BBC” Twitter account established by Mr Yucel in June attracted 40,000 followers within 48 hours, prompting Ms Ryan to offer to take charge of a more formal campaign. “For the last four years the Brexiteers have been portrayed by the BBC as being thick, racist and old,” she told The Times yesterday. “It is difficult to explain to people who didn’t support Brexit how it actually feels to be forced to pay for something on fear of imprisonment only to be repeatedly portrayed in that way. It’s a deep, deep injustice.”

Some commentators have suggested that Defund the BBC is being funded by wealthy right-wing donors. However, Ms Ryan insists that the group is “100 per cent grassroots-funded”. “The same thing happened with StandUp4Brexit, in that I get accused of being an astroturf [fake grassroots] campaign, and there’s some big man behind it,” said Ms Ryan, who is managing director of Blue Sky Digital, a political communications consultancy. “It’s quite a misogynist view. There was no big man behind StandUp4Brexit and there is no big man behind this.”

Defund the BBC says it has three main goals: to spread awareness of how people can legally cancel their TV licence, to push ministers to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee and to lobby for the compulsory annual levy to be reduced to the lowest possible level in the BBC’s mid-charter review in 2022. The existence of the licence fee itself is guaranteed until 2027.

A GoFundMe crowdfunding appeal has raised £56,800 from 2,700 donors.

The BBC’s annual report revealed that TV licence sales fell by 250,000 last year. Recent YouGov polling found that only a quarter of people believed that the fee should continue in its present form, although the BBC itself retains a positive rating, with 48 per cent saying that they view it favourably compared with 44 per cent who do not.

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