Salford Quays and BBC MediaCity UK by night Salford Quays and BBC MediaCity UK by night. Photo: Flickr/ Matt

Apocalyptic rumours followed by a row-back and relief. It’s an age-old strategy, but what is the reality behind the government’s BBC proposals?

The good folk at the Cambridge University Conservative Association must be a little disappointed. Having listened to culture secretary John Whittingdale tell them only last month that the disappearance of the BBC was “a tempting prospect”, they will now have noticed that his white paper on the future of the BBC is planning to do no such thing.

Instead, Whittingdale has praised the BBC for being a “revered national institution, and familiar treasured companion” and has produced a document that will, in large part, satisfy the executives in Old Broadcasting House. It awards the BBC an eleven-year charter – purposefully designed to insulate it from the politics of the electoral cycle – and increases licence fee revenue in line with inflation for at least the next five years. As trailed for some months, it scraps the much-maligned BBC Trust and replaces it with a twin structure: a unitary board that will oversee the strategy, activity and everyday output of the BBC and an external regulator in the shape of Ofcom.

As with any effective strategy to transform the structure and culture of a popular institution, the Charter Review process seems to have been based on a two-step strategy. First, you allow a series of leaks: that the government will intervene in scheduling popular shows like Strictly Come Dancing; that it will force the BBC to hand over money to other broadcasters; that it will make the BBC sell off its stake in UKTV; that it will stop the BBC website from featuring recipes. This will allow you simultaneously to test the water and to create apocalyptic expectations. Second, draw back on the more extreme policies so that the final document is greeted with relief but, meanwhile, introduce small-scale changes that are unlikely to generate significant criticism but which nevertheless create important precedents for the future. In that way, it feels less like a blowout and more like a slow puncture.

This seems to be the dynamic underpinning ‘A BBC for the future: a broadcaster of distinction’, published today.

The threat to independence

The most immediate issue concerns the government’s plans for governance. Whittingdale promised earlier this week that he had “taken steps to ensure the independence of the BBC is beyond doubt”. But his much trumpeted claim that the majority of the new unitary board will be appointed by the BBC does little to change the fact that nearly half of the board, including the crucial positions of chair and deputy chair, will nevertheless be selected by government. The fact that this was already the case for the soon-to-be-scrapped BBC Trust is hardly relevant given that the new board will be far closer to the editorial heart of the BBC than the Trust ever was. Furthermore, Whittingdale’s promise to involve the Commissioner for Public Appointments is hardly a guarantee of political independence given ongoing claims about the politicisation of the appointments process. The prospect of undue political interference into the running of the BBC would still seem to be on the cards.

The decision to hand regulatory powers to Ofcom was probably a foregone conclusion after Sir David Clementi recommended it in his report in March. The problem here is that Ofcom was originally set up to promote competition in the communications sector and so, while it has a profound knowledge of the overall media landscape, its natural inclination – unless specifically tasked not to do so – will be to evaluate BBC content and services in relation to the interests of its commercial competitors as opposed to those of the public.

Towards an unpopular BBC?

This is where the danger of the repeated use of ‘distinctiveness’ comes to the fore. The culture secretary seems determined to turn what ought to be a fairly innocuous concept into an instrument with which to discipline the BBC when it produces popular content. This weaponising of “distinctiveness” is particularly clear in the white paper, where mentions of distinctiveness are regularly followed by references to “market impact”. The concern here is that Ofcom may now be asked to preside over endless complaints from the BBC’s commercial rivals that it is not sufficiently “distinctive” – especially when its content or services interfere with the profits of its rivals.

Who defines bias?

The white paper highlights the need for the BBC to show a greater commitment to “impartiality”. This will be welcome news to those people who, backed by academic research, complain that BBC News has, for far too long, privileged pro-business, conservative-minded voices and has marginalised and derided more radical perspectives. Indeed, this argument was amplified by comments made by Sir Michael Lyons, former chair of the BBC Trust, on the BBC’s World at One shortly after the white paper was published. He spoke about the “quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour Party” and added that he could “understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this.”

However, this is unlikely to be what motivated the culture secretary to focus on “impartiality”. After all, as the Sun’s headline yesterday insisted, ‘Beeb mission statement overhaul will put end to ‘leftwing biased content’’. Instead, the concern is that “impartiality” can be yet another tool with which to challenge broadcasters when they step out of line. Let’s remember that one of the reasons why the Polish president, earlier this year, passed a bill putting the public broadcaster under government control was precisely because he wanted state media to be “impartial, objective and credible”. We already have impartiality regulations in relation to the UK’s broadcast environment: the key is not to politicise them further but to make sure that they actually work to produce genuinely diverse and critical political coverage.

No more commitment to cutting-edge tech

While the white paper adds impartiality to the list of public purposes, it has scrapped the purpose that commits the BBC to develop new technologies in the public interest. Given the BBC’s record in pioneering innovations from colour television to the iPlayer, it would seem very short-sighted to prevent the BBC from further work in this area – unless the government was keen to leave this field open to commercial interests.

…and finally, funding

The BBC may celebrate an inflation-linked rise in the licence fee although this, of course, will do little to compensate for the huge costs it now has to bear as a result of paying for the over-75s licence fees and the fact that it still has to bear the costs of World Service and S4C. The white paper also requires the BBC to pay for enhanced local news reporting, thus subsidising some of the work that for-profit newspapers ought to be doing in any case.

But the white paper also throws out one other revealing nugget in relation to funding. It announces that while there are no plans to replace the licence fee with subscription funding, it is very supportive of a pilot project developed by the BBC to “consider whether elements of subscription could provide a more sustainable funding model in the longer term.” It is hard to believe that the BBC came up with this idea on its own but, either way, it creates a dangerous precedent in which new services and platforms could well be funded by subscription thus undermining one of the central platforms of the BBC: the fact that its services are free at the point of use.

There are some undoubted positives in the white paper as well: the commitment to enshrine diversity into the charter which, if properly funded and fought for, could make a meaningful difference to the employment and representation of minority communities; the opening up of the BBC archives and the call for more training opportunities.

But these are rather lost in a narrative which still sees public service broadcasting in relation to its impact on the wider media market and which fails to make radical or imaginative changes to a “national” broadcaster when the very idea of the “nation” is up for grabs.

In the end, perhaps the Cambridge students won’t be that disappointed. Frankly, who apart from Sun leader writers, James Murdoch, the Institute of Economic Affairs and some Tory backbenchers like Andrew Bridgen, really wants to destroy – as opposed to diminish – an institution that is such a crucial instrument of British soft power in the world today? Who wants to alienate the voters who watch Match of the Day, Strictly, Eastenders and Happy Valley? Who really wants to pick a fight with Gary Lineker, Mark Rylance and Lenny Henry? This isn’t a recipe for complacency: the threats to the BBC’s status as a major public service broadcaster haven’t gone away. They have only been downgraded**.

** Perhaps Number Ten has had something to do with this.

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.

Tagged under: