The White Paper on the future of the BBC is broadly good news for the organisation, but that’s only because the real damage has already been done. George Osborne’s budget raid cost the organisation £630 million, and led to the closure of BBC3 as a digital broadcast channel amongst other cuts. So the 12 May White Paper proposals seem relatively acceptable, even though each one of the following is a new departure for the BBC:
- a unitary board
- Ofcom and National Audit Office oversight
- top-slicing the licence fee
- a new remit
- co-operation with local news organisations.
A long and public campaign has been fought by the BBC’s defenders to get to this point. The 2015 Green Paper (which floated ideas to see what might be acceptable) was based on such allegations as:
- BBC distorts the market in news, internet, radio and TV
- BBC should no longer have the central aim of being a universal provider in broadcasting
- BBC should become a market-failure guarantor, providing only that which commercial interests cannot provide
- BBC should no longer be a self-regulating organisation but should be regulated by Ofcom
- BBC should not be funded by a ‘regressive tax’ (Whittingdale) like the licence fee
Now we have White Paper that proposes an eleven year BBC charter, funded by an index-linked licence fee. It builds into its new mission statement that the BBC should be providing services ‘for everyone’.
The huge response to the consultation process (192,564 separate contributions) put paid to a lot of the most insane ideas from think tanks and friends of Whittingdale. The horrendous proposals that were leaked during the weeks running up to the White Paper’s publication were fought off by a concerted lobby by grandees and the open threat of rebellion by former Tory minister Damian Green. Lord Patten, the man who delivered John Major’s election victory and went on to be last governor of Hong Kong and BBC Chair, elegantly exposed the press head of steam behind Whittingdale’s anti-BBC campaign by saying “Where are these constituencies where the voters worry more about the BBC than they do about having a job, or getting a home, or putting food on the plate? I can tell you the answer: they don’t exist. No one actually lives there. Like Old Sarum, they are rotten boroughs with grandiloquent names. Old Murdoch; Great Dacre-upon-Thames; Lesser Desmond.” And it also helped that Whittingdale does not exactly have the Prime Minister’s ear since he came out as a prominent backer of the Brexit campaign.
So the BBC can be glad that it has many friends and is dealing with a dysfunctional government at the moment.
Here are the main proposals:
- A new mission statement, the first since 1922: “To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain”
- A unitary Board, replacing the dual structure of BBC executive board and BBC Trust, which was widely seen as not working after a decade’s worth of problems
- Ofcom to act as the overall regulatory body for the BBC, including dealing with complaints, replacing the semi-self-regulatory Trust structure
- An 11 year charter, reviewable in mid-term after five and a half years so that renewal no longer coincides with the election of a fixed-term parliament. It will also have an index linked licence fee for at least the first half of its life
- The licence fee that will apply to BBC iPlayer viewing as well as off-air broadcasting (students please note!), allowing i-Player to become portable so that licence fee payers outside the UK will be able to log into it
- Ofcom to monitor the BBC’s ‘market impact’ and all of BBC programming to be open to independent production (except news and current affairs)
- Top-slicing the licence fee to create a fund for public service programming of £20 million a year, open to all comers. Examples used are programmes for children and minority ethnic cultures
- A series of concrete initiatives on diversity including target to ensure that 15% of lead roles go to BAME actors by 2020 and 50% of lead roles going to women. On the management side, 15% of senior leadership roles will be reserved for BAME applicants, 10% for LGBT, 8% for disabled staff, and a gender balanced senior leadership team will be in place by 2020.
- BBC spending and value for money to be monitored by the National Audit Office
- An innovative partnership with local news providers including a pool of journalists and sharing footage with local newspaper websites
- Revelations about which onscreen talent earns more than £450,000 a year
I didn’t make the last one up, by the way, but it seems to be popular. There are also warm words about management efficiency and making archive content available, but these recommendations are scarcely concrete.
So where are the big problems? The extensive leaking of proposals and ‘proposals’ and even “proposals” in the last few weeks made me think that they were going to sneak something really big and nasty past us all. But in the end, for the reasons stated above, that does not seem to be the case. Nevertheless, there are some key issues to keep an eye on.
Most observers, and the BBC itself, agree that the new combination of unitary Board and Ofcom oversight is a desirable plan. Ofcom is probably concerned that the volume of complaints it will receive will dwarf those for other channels. The BBC averages about 200,000 complaints a year, an index of how much people regard it as ‘their’ broadcaster. By contrast, last week Ofcom said that “no programme [from any other UK broadcaster] in the last 7 days received more than 10 complaints”.
However, the composition of the proposed new unitary Board is a big problem.
The White Paper proposes that six appointments are made by the government as public appointments, including Chair, Deputy Chair and representatives of the nations and regions. These six would be joined by another six to eight appointments made by the BBC itself, including both its most senior executives and a relatively small number of non-executive appointments. This gets very close to being a board effectively controlled by state appointees. That’s the real problem and will have to be resolved in the coming months. The new charter will apparently enshrine the BBC’s independence, but the realpolitik of the last few months, and Whittingdale’s antics in particular, show how that independence can be compromised by the actions of a few in powerful positions.
Beyond this, the BBC is concerned by the level of National Audit Office involvement, particularly where ‘value for money’ is concerned, pointing out that there are several commercial areas of BBC activity, like BBC Worldwide, which are not funded from the licence fee.
Any producers working for shows like Casualty or Holby City or Eastenders, which are made in house, will be concerned that all BBC programming will be open to independent production. On the other hand, if the BBC Studios project (currently shedding senior staff by the day) ever gets going, the inhouse production teams will be able to tender for work for other providers… potentially giving a further public service boost to UK TV content. There is a real risk here to the distinctiveness of BBC programming which the White Paper otherwise defends. The risk has been enhanced by the budget cuts, reorganisations and uncertainties of the last year or two. The BBC’s few remaining leaders will need every ounce of their confidence building skills to reduce that risk.
Then there is the top slicing proposal. This is something that free market enthusiasts have been after for years. It first surfaced in the 1990s, when Sky executives were bleating on about the BBC having an unfair advantage, and saying that they would make great public service programming if only they had access to some licence fee funding. Now in 2016, it will probably happen, but in a small way and for a three year experimental period. £20 million a year will be diverted to a fund for producing public service content, given out by a board of the great and the good. The BBC could lay claim to some of the money along with anyone else. This seems reasonable enough, as the besieged inhabitants of Troy once remarked. But we should all be aware that this does make it easier to privatise or part-privatise Channel 4 (another Whittingdale project) as this public service fund would provide a useful figleaf, seeming to guarantee that a privatise Channel 4 would still be able to function within its remit. And, of course, in the longer term it would mean that the BBC’s licence fee income is endangered from a totally left-field direction: the top-slice fund will, if successful, inevitably want to grow larger.
Perhaps the most startling proposal relates to local news. Local newspapers are dying on their feet, and they have perceived that BBC is preventing them from surviving. In fact, their scale and areas of operation are very different. James Harding proposed a form of co-operation when he first arrived at the BBC in 2013. Now the White Paper offers, with the BBC’s agreement, that 150 local journalist posts should be BBC-funded, and that footage for regional BBC news should be shared with local newspaper websites, giving them a considerable boost. The trick will be, of course, enabling this without further cuts to the BBC’s own domestic news-gathering services, already compromised by the increasing demands of World Service and decreasing overall income. This proposal, in a relatively quiet way, ushers in a new area of BBC co-operation with other threatened news organisations… one which, unlike the top-slicing proposal, leaves the BBC’s editorial values firmly in place.
So we still have a BBC, free as it has been since 1922 to innovate ceaselessly in its internal structures and sometimes in its programming as well. But it has been a close call, and the fight is not over yet. The new charter will have to come into force on 1 January 2017 (as the old one runs out) so there is not much time to fix the remaining problems, particularly about how the powerful unitary board will be composed in practice. And we face an extremely volatile national political situation over those next few months.
JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He leads the ADAPT project on the history of technologies in TV, funded by a €1.6 million grant from the European Research Council. He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and also oversees the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen. His publications can be found HERE.