This isn’t public policy: the prelude to the BBC White Paper

Debate about the BBC’s Charter Review has been dominated by leaks and rumours that ultimately play into the hands of commercial lobbyists. Where are the voices of licence-fee payers? 

Des Freedman
3 May 2016

Strictly Come Dancing is at the centre of new rumours about a 'clamp down' on competitive scheduling at the BBC. Image: Katja Ogrin/Press Association/EMPICS entertainment. All rights reserved

It is hard to know whether the recent rumours about the contents of the forthcoming White Paper on the future of the BBC should be seen as light entertainment or crime drama. 

Three leading Sunday newspapers revealed that the government plans to interfere in the scheduling of popular programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing, Silent Witness and the News at Ten. Even the merest hint that it would be appropriate for government to get involved in detailed scheduling decisions in order to prevent the BBC running popular programmes against its rivals would seem to have been taken straight out of the commercial lobbyists’ handbook. 

After all, this was precisely the argument in ITV’s comprehensive indictment of BBC strategy in its response to Charter Review. The 75 page-long document provides detailed evidence of how, when the BBC ran original drama against its own Broadchurch, this significantly cut into ITV audiences. Or rather, as ITV stated, competitive scheduling by the BBC ‘materially reduced Broadchurch’s ability to convert viewers into commercial impacts, resulting in lower revenue generating potential on a like-for-like viewing basis, substantially damaging ITV’s return on investment in Broadchurch.’ 

The idea that viewers would have been pleased to have had a choice between two high quality UK originated programmes, Broadchurch and Silent Witness, does not appear to have been taken on board quite as much as the potential loss to ITV in advertising earnings. And the idea that the overall quality of television benefits from the healthy interaction between two major broadcasters seems to have been eclipsed by a commitment to the bottom line only. 

Of course, the government moved quickly to deny that they had any such plans to deprive potential voters of Strictly on a Saturday night. ‘The secretary of state has made it clear on a number of occasions that the government cannot, and indeed should not, determine either the content or scheduling of programmes.’ But the kite had been flown and the Sun, for example, was quick to commend the culture secretary on his boldness: ‘It’s a nonsense that the national broadcaster goes head-to-head with ITV for viewers when the Beeb’s cash comes from the licence fee. Through silly scheduling and its over-mighty website, the BBC uses its taxpayer-funded heft to force competitors out of business. Enough is enough.’ 

What’s the real threat to the Sun? Is it falling newspaper sales? Declining advertising revenue? The migration of audiences and attention online? No, it’s the mighty BBC – perhaps not quite as mighty as Sky, with whom the title effectively shares an owner – which is apparently single-handedly putting at risk all the other plucky little news outlets. 

It’s worth noting that the BBC certainly doesn’t appear to be putting ITV out of business given that its profits last year were not far off £1 billion, an 18% increase on 2014. 

Anyway, this is by no means the only kite to be launched during this Charter Review campaign. In March, the Sunday Times revealed that the culture secretary had decided that proposals by Sir David Clementi to replace the BBC Trust with a Unitary Board, half of whom would be appointed by government, didn’t go far enough. The culture secretary claimed instead that the idea of DCMS selecting 11 out of 13 Board members would in no way ‘compromise their independence’. Others saw it as the emergence of a ‘Whittingdale Broadcasting Corporation’. 

Leaks and rumours have dominated a process that has dragged on for some ten months now. A government source told the Independent that the BBC will need to put out to competitive tender ‘up to 100 per cent’ of its programming while a ‘senior government source’ told the Sunday Times that the BBC was going to be forced to sell its highly profitable shares in UKTV and to hand over some £100 million to other programme makers. These stories, although vehemently denied by government, help to frame the Charter Review debate by putting the BBC on the defensive and cultivating the impression that the BBC is over-extended, over-ambitious and, strangely for an organisation that relies on public money, simply too popular for its own good.

Not all of the rumours are necessarily unwelcome – for example, there is nothing wrong with demanding that the BBC is more transparent about the wages of its star talent and an 11-year charter extension would certainly generate a sigh of relief from Corporation executives.  

The main point, however, is that this is not a process that can easily be described as public policy. It was bad enough that a licence fee deal was agreed behind closed doors last summer and that the BBC was forced to act as a proxy for government welfare policies by being forced to pay for free licences for the over-65s. It was bad enough when it was revealed that many thousands of genuine responses to Charter Review were either ignored or dismissed for being politically motivated. And it is certainly bad enough that the whole process runs the risk of being shaped by vested interests with little time for public service broadcasting. 

This is precisely the perception that has been reinforced by the latest rumours about a crack down on competitive scheduling – a move which would be a huge concession to the BBC’s commercial rivals. Those people who – having seen the government bully the BBC over the licence fee and who are increasingly dismayed by an editorial policy that is all too often cowed for fear of further antagonising the people who hold the purse strings – claim that the Corporation is on a slippery slope towards being a state broadcaster, will surely feel even more vindicated by this proposal. 

The BBC has a remit to cater to all audiences; it does not have a remit to provide content only if it is convenient (and profitable) for its commercial rivals. It needs to provide both ‘distinctive’ and ‘popular’ programming in order to continue the ‘mixed provision’ that is at the heart of its appeal and its Charter obligations. The BBC doesn’t need to scale down its output but to ramp up its risk-taking and its feistiness. It also desperately needs structures that will allow it to exercise a meaningful degree of independence so that it can stand up powerful interests instead of being shaped by them.

This is what the Charter Review process ought to focus on and what the White Paper ought to put into place. However, with a week to go before this document is finally published, it feels like this has been a policy debate scripted by BBC critics inside the Tory press and directed by ministers with political agendas that appear hostile to the very idea of public broadcasting. It’s time to hear the voices of licence fee payers – both positive and negative – and to let them shape the future of the BBC. But could our policymaking process ever let this happen?

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