Steven Barnett (University of Westminster)
The first outright election of a Conservative government for nearly 25 years could have dire consequences for the BBC. Within 3 months of its election – and despite lacking any popular mandate through its election manifesto – the government launched a three-pronged assault on the BBC, which was nothing less than a constitutional outrage. Its green paper on the BBC’s future, outlined in more detail below, suggests a profound philosophical shift which could potentially reduce the BBC to an impotent rump, of little cultural or democratic influence, within ten years. Moreover, this damage could easily be inflicted without the endorsement of – and contrary to the will of – Parliament.
BBC supporters have been complacent about its future, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by a benign political environment going back to 1992. Following Margaret Thatcher’s thwarted intentions to force the BBC to take advertising, the government’s of Major, Blair, and Brown were instinctively sympathetic, and the 2010 coalition’s approach was softened by a vital Liberal Democrat presence. With the BBC now under greater institutional threat than at any time in its 90 year history, it is time to guarantee its independence through statute, requiring any future changes to the BBC Charter and Agreement to be agreed by Parliament. We need an independent, transparent, mechanism to settle BBC funding as well as statutory provision for parliamentary scrutiny which prevents malicious interventions by a hostile government.
Three days after the election, Cameron appointed John Whittingdale as his new Secretary of State for Culture, a long-term BBC critic on the right of his party. As chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee for the last ten years, he was well known for his belief that the BBC should be considerably smaller and once described the licence fee as ‘worse than the poll tax’.
Within another two months and following secret talks between Chancellor George Osborne and Director General Tony Hall, the government announced a shotgun funding settlement which effectively reduced the BBC’s annual income by around 10%. Their “deal” entailed the BBC taking on the cost of free television licences for over-75s (£750m per annum and rising) in return for closing the loophole which allows viewers to watch catch-up services without a TV licence, and linking the licence fee to inflation (together worth £150m at best).
Speaking in a short House of Lords debate ,just after the announcement, former Director General John Birt – not renowned for hyperbole or scaremongering – was withering in his assessment of this settlement foisted on the BBC, and a similar shotgun deal when the coalition entered government in 2010: “…..we look to government to be at its wisest when the challenge is at its greatest, yet twice in five years we have seen not wisdom but opportunistic, expedient and unprincipled diktats issued to the BBC in the dead of night, a pistol to its head, absent any democratic debate—diktats that have sidelined the licence fee payers, the trust that represents them, the department concerned and Parliament itself. Above all, these diktats have trampled on the independence of the BBC.”
Two days after the Lords debate, the new Culture Secretary presented a Green Paper on the future of the BBC. This was necessary because the BBC’s Charter and Licence, which govern its operation, expire at the end of next year. In 1996 and 2006 these decennial renewals were used by incumbent governments, not only as opportunities for gradual reform, but also for restating the democratic, cultural and universal benefits of a well-funded, hugely trusted and internationally admired institution.
This government sees it differently. The paper’s rhetoric is dominated by concern for the BBC’s impact on commercial rivals and how this might be reduced. It is clearly attracted to the proposition that “the BBC might become more focused on a narrower, core set of services”, the model which is more prevalent in PBS in the United States or CBC in Canada, where public broadcasters languish at the margins of society with little money and even less resonance in people’s everyday lives.
Moreover, the notion of a narrower and less universally accessible BBC is compounded by suggestion that rivals might have access to the licence fee. The notion of top-slicing or “contestable funding” for BBC revenue has long been a favourite of the BBC’s increasingly vocal competitors who fear both subscription (which would potentially compromise the revenues of Sky, Virgin and BT, and advertising (equally opposed by ITV, Channel Five and other ad-funded channels). It would gradually erode the size, scale and influence of the BBC to a point where the public interest would be thoroughly compromised. A smaller BBC would undoubtedly mean less investment in original contentas the BBC is the biggest commissioner of new UK content; less innovation as commercial broadcasters prefer the safety of yesterday’s successes; and less inclusiveness as commodified subscription models increase their hold on premium sport, movies and popular foreign content.
The vehicle for all these reforms would be a new governance system for the BBC. It has become a conventional wisdom that the current system, a “BBC Trust” designed by former Culture minister Tessa Jowell to be the “eyes and ears of the licence payer”, does not work. That wisdom is recycled through the editorial columns of self-interested publishers as a received fact, despite the Trust being less than ten years old and having proved itself both an effective safeguard against political interference and an valuable scrutineer of BBC operations. It can and should survive, but the BBC’s enemies see more advantage in its abolition.
Both proposals for its replacement would be highly detrimental. The first, a new standalone regulator which would “not risk being distracted by wider responsibilities” (i.e. defending the BBC’s independence), would also be responsible for distribution of the licence fee. A natural consequence would be to allow it to distribute funding elsewhere, in other words the very top-slicing so coveted by BBC rivals. The second governance option, to hand regulation to Ofcom, would entail a single monopolistic regulator overseeing both private and public sectors – and moreover, a regulator which is partly responsible for ensuring the health and vitality of the commercial sector which is so vocal about the BBC’s size.
There is therefore a clear direction of travel from this government, with currently no mechanisms for formal opposition. Our civil society groups are gearing up but have few resources and little campaigning experience beyond galvanising the academy and Radio 4 listeners. A grass roots campaign is needed to explain to viewers and listeners the havoc that is being unleashed on the BBC, and to embarrass David Cameron – but so far there appears to be little appetite or momentum and no obvious vehicle.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect is the impotence of Parliament and the bypassing of the democratic will. What is urgently needed therefore is legislative change to restore power, over the UK’s most important cultural institution, to Parliament. Two key changes are required: first, an independent body must be established which would set the licence fee in a fair, transparent and evidence-based manner; second, Parliament must have a statutory role in protecting the BBC from malicious and whimsical political interference.
In his speech to the House of Lords on 14 July, John Major’s former broadcasting minister Richard Inglewood suggested that the Government “should put on the statute book a BBC charter renewal (procedure) Act 2015” which would establish a “road map” for the current process and future occasions. Other peers floated similar proposals. We need a similar show of anger and frustration from all sides of the political spectrum in the lower House, which would demonstrate to government that they cannot unilaterally eviscerate the BBC without some kind of political accountability. If that kind of political support is to be mobilised, it must be done quickly: there is little time, and the government is no doubt banking on a combination of electoral lethargy and political compliance to see their destructive proposals through.
Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster. He gave oral evidence to the Culture select committee inquiry on the BBC, and has written widely about its structure, funding and constitution over the last 30 years. His latest book, Media Power and Plurality: From Hyperlocal to High-Level Policy (co-edited with Judith Townend) was published in May by Palgrave Macmillan.