John Whittingdale is a committed free-marketeer. Credit: Jon Super / PA Images
Want a glimpse of the culture minister’s real agenda for the BBC? Just turn to pages 112-115 of the government’s White Paper and the commissioned questions asked by the polling agency. They are very revealing.
Amongst other things, respondents are asked whether the BBC is “crowding out the competition”; whether commercial radio suffers because of BBC services; whether the licence fee is good value, and whether it should be replaced by a household levy or subscription; whether there should be top-slicing; and whether cross-promotion should be allowed. There are also some very strangely worded statements about distinctiveness, which must have had the polling company’s questionnaire designers squirming in their seats.
In the event, little of this consumer research appears in the White Paper itself, but the mantra of “distinctiveness” is pervasive – appearing in some form over eighty times throughout the hundred pages. It is a theme that the culture minister himself has long pursued: John Whittingdale is a committed free marketeer who has never liked the size or scale of the BBC. This was his opportunity to make serious inroads into the populist element of the BBC and satisfy the “crowding out” grievances of rival broadcasters and publishers.
On the face of it, he has failed. The BBC’s popular shows, like Strictly and Bake-Off, now trip easily off commentators’ tongues as legitimately “distinctive” and the more outlandish ideas such as “banning” competitive scheduling never even made it to the starting grid. There is now a widespread view that, with the licence fee intact and an eleven-year Charter, the BBC has somehow emerged unscathed.
This is dangerously complacent, and a reminder of quite how successful the culture department and national press has been in preparing us for a full-frontal assault. In fact, a closer inspection of the White Paper small print suggests that there will almost certainly be some serious constraints on the BBC’s creative freedom to launch or sustain popular programming.
Whittingdale said in his statement to the House of Commons that Ofcom will be required to “establish a new operating licence regime for the BBC, backed with clear sanctions”. So Ofcom will be asked to rethink (and simplify) the current system of service licences, and to set objectives for the BBC derived from the new purposes – especially “distinctiveness”. To avoid any ambiguity, this is explicitly defined as “a requirement that the BBC should be substantially different to other providers across each and every service, both in prime time and overall, and on television, radio and online”.
In case Ofcom fails to fully appreciate the government’s objectives, page 55 of the White Paper helpfully assures us that “the government will provide guidance to the regulator on content requirements and performance metrics to set clear policy parameters for the creation of this new regime”. Which raises an interesting question: will we get to see this “guidance” before the Charter is finalised?
Not only will Ofcom be tasked with quantifying BBC performance against government-led objectives, it will also have powers to “investigate any aspect of BBC services’ impact on commercial services”. This is a profoundly important shift from the current regime which requires intervention only for a proposed new service or a “significant change” to an existing service.
It will certainly prompt a string of complaints from, for example, Global Radio about aspects of BBC Radio 1, ITV about some BBC1 programmes, Telegraph Newspapers about BBC online, Trinity Mirror about local radio, and so on. It is a recipe not just for regulatory chaos and logjam, but for tying up the BBC in endless defensive debates about new programmes and the definition of distinctiveness – all in the shadow of screechingly hostile headlines from the tabloid press and its hangers-on about “leftie luvvies”.
Meanwhile, there is a second battle to be fought over independence. As expected, following the Clementi report on governance, a new unitary board of twelve or thirteen will manage the BBC’s everyday activities while regulatory oversight passes to Ofcom. The BBC Trust (in my view, a perfectly good governance model betrayed by some shocking BBC executive decisions), is quietly put to sleep.
Whittingdale is insisting on retaining the power to appoint the chairman, vice chairman and four other members of this board. Despite ignorant protestations from those who really should know better that this is no different from the Trust or BBC governors of old, it would actually be unprecedented for the body which oversees day to day editorial and strategic decisions to contain a significant number of ministerial appointments.
In these days of transparency and accountability, there is no conceivable justification for not removing those appointments from political control and creating a truly independent appointments system. We have an independent Judicial Appointments Commission to appoint senior judges, and an independent Press Recognition Panel as part of the post-Leveson structure on press self-regulation. There are plenty of precedents and models for an arms-length appointments system which will not only safeguard the BBC’s much-vaunted reputation for independence, but will send a message to national and international audiences that we understand the difference between a public broadcaster and a state broadcaster.
That message is being increasingly muddied by an apparent determination to move the BBC closer to the government’s embrace. Plans to allow unfettered access to the National Audit Office would offer another lever for political oversight, as well as the potential for compromising confidential journalistic source material. A five-year “mid-term review” will offer another opportunity for close scrutiny and finger-wagging by a newly elected government. And of course the now super-powerful Ofcom has its chair appointed by the government.
In short, this White Paper could compromise both the BBC's international reputation for freedom from government interference, and its place at the heart of British popular culture which commands huge public affection. Neither change will be rapid or easily visible. But over the next eleven years, this White Paper will be pushing the BBC closer to the malign embrace of government and further away from the everyday lives of its users. John Whittingdale might yet succeed in getting the eviscerated, worthier, and much diminished BBC for which his ideological allies have always yearned.