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Government announces fundamental review of the BBC

By | Published on Friday 17 July 2015


Despite its various PR challenges in recent years, if there’s one thing that’s going to send most of the UK creative community to the internet to big up the British Broadcasting Corporation, it’s the news that a big bad Tory has instigated a “fundamental review” of the state broadcaster.

Though Beeb-fans will have to hope that, in this social media age, the online celebrity big-ups will drown out all the inevitable commentary in our marvellous newspapers, most of which will use the big review to wheel out the customary angry critiques about the BBC being wasteful, pointless, out-of-control, and out-of-touch.

The big bad Tory in this particular assault on the Corporation is Johnny Whittingdale, Culture Secretary, who yesterday announced details of a full review of all things BBC ahead of the latest renewal of the Corporation’s Royal Charter. BBC supporters fear that, under pressure from commercial media players and Beeb-haters in Whittingdale’s own party, this review could force funding-cuts or new regulations onto the Corporation that could damage its output, or change the very ethos of the organisation.

Needless to say, Whittingdale insists that there are no foregone conclusions as he heads into this independent BBC review, and that given how much the Corporation has grown in the last 20 years, not to mention the net-led revolution that has occurred in the wider media and entertainment industries, now is the right time to ask big questions, and to consider whether the current range of services the BBC offers “best serves licence fee payers”.

In a green paper published yesterday, the Culture Secretary confirmed that the two big issues of funding and regulation will be at the top of the agenda for the review.

Debate around the long-term future of the licence fee – whereby every household consuming live TV must contribute into the pot – has been particularly loud in recent months. And while something along the current system is likely to appear in the next Royal Charter deal, ministers seem keen for BBC bosses to start working towards some alternative funding approach for when the next deal is done. Whether that would be a complete shift to an opt-in subscription system, or some kind of more flexible licence fee arrangement, is amongst the things to be considered in this review.

As for regulation, it seems likely that the BBC Trust – which currently sits between the Beeb and the government, Parliament and the licence fee payer – will go; though quite what will replace it is not yet clear.

But – while the future of the licence fee (which even most Beeb-fans recognise will eventually have to be replaced) and the BBC Trust (which few would fight to save) will be key components of this government review – of more concern to the broadcaster’s supporters is Whittingdale’s announcement that he will also consider “the overall purpose of the BBC and what services and content it should provide”. Which seems reasonable on the face of it, but many fear this opens the door for commercial rivals to try to cut their unusually-funded competitor down to size, targeting more mainstream output in particular.

For its part, the BBC expressed concerns about that part of the review, and insisted that ultimately the public – rather than politicians and commercial media lobbyists – should decide the future of the Corporation. It said in a statement: “We believe that this green paper would appear to herald a much diminished, less popular BBC. That would be bad for Britain and would not be the BBC that the public has known and loved for over 90 years”.

It went on: “It is important that we hear what the public want. It should be for the public to decide whether programmes like ‘Strictly’ or ‘Bake Off’, or stations like Radio 1 or 2, should continue. As the Director General said on Tuesday, the BBC is not owned by its staff or by politicians, it is owned by the public. They are our shareholders. They pay the licence fee. Their voice should be heard the loudest”.

While the BBC might have to fight off critics elsewhere in the media sector as its remit is reviewed, it is likely to find a strong ally in the music industry. Responding to the green paper yesterday, Geoff Taylor, boss of record label trade group BPI, said: “The BBC is critical to the success of British music. The UK is a world beater when it comes to investing in exciting new music and in developing emerging talent into global stars. The availability of a range of different radio services on the BBC, catering to different tastes and ages, plays a crucial part in this success”.

Noting that the Beeb’s more mainstream services might be most hotly debated during the review, he added: “That includes stations such as Radio 1 and 2, which bring new popular music to significant, different audiences as well as supporting specialist genres such as folk and country that would not find such broad access to large audiences anywhere else on radio”.