The Whittingdale Eight: war or wisdom for the BBC?

The government has set up an advisory panel for its review of the BBC Charter. So who will be leading this process? And how should the corporation approach the coming debate?     

Lis Howell
15 July 2015

John Whittingdale will lead the process of the BBC Charter Renewal. Image: Flickr/ Number 10

John Whittingdale,nicknamed an “adolescent ideologue” by Lord Patten, hasn’t let the grass grow under his feet. He has done a lot in the two months since his appointment as Secretary for Culture Media and Sport on 11 May. 

He has arrived at a deal with the BBC over how to deal with the ghastly problem of modernising the licence fee, and he has appointed a committee of eight great and good people to look into the knotty problem of the BBC Royal Charter renewal. He’s also responsible for a green paper on the BBC which asks fundamental questions about what it should do. He’s an enthusiast who cannot believe his luck. Maybe he does resemble a teenager given the car keys, but at least he’s passed his test in the shape of chairing the CMS Select Committee on the future of the BBC which went on for yonks and listened to dozens of submissions. 

And being an adolescent isn’t all bad, despite Lord Patten (clearly so much older) calling him names. Edward III came to the throne aged 15 and did very well. But whoah – we are talking Culture Secretaries here, not Kings of England. Even so, John Whittingdale has managed to affirm his authority, and gather a court around him. By seizing the moment, he has left his critics gasping and put Baron Tony Hall in the unfortunate position of vowing that this should never happen again. Even though it happened this time, and the time before. So what has Whittingdale done in his short reign that has caused such disarray amongst the over-mighty subjects? 

Firstly he has done a swift and silent deal with the BBC, so that the corporation will pay for free telly for the over 75s. This will cost the BBC £650 million per annum, rising yearly, out of the licence fee (which brings in £3.7 million). Personally I think it is mad, as I know many over-75s who could easily pay for this, and I very much doubt they will voluntarily stump up, as the BBC hopes. But that was what the government wanted. In return for funding these oldies to get BBC Three et al, the BBC will (hopefully) be helped to find a way to extend the licence fee to iPlayer users. This will get back the ‘guestimated’ £150 million the BBC is losing because some households won’t pay the licence fee on the grounds that they only use ‘catch-up’. On top of this there is a guarantee that the licence fee will go up with inflation and not be touched for the next, or maybe the last, five years of its existence.

Actually, this sort of horse-trading leading to ‘top slicing’ of the licence fee revenue has been debated with the BBC since 2008 at least – and the assumption that the licence fee belongs to the BBC is erroneous, even if for decades the BBC was the sole beneficiary. Licence fee payers pay for receiving live TV, not for receiving the BBC, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that the elected government could and should have a say in how this money is spent. Anyway, Tony Hall says the BBC hasn’t really lost anything by this deal, despite what he laments as its lack of transparency. He hints that he was mugged by a wicked highwayman, yet was smart enough to get something back for “the millions of people who use the BBC everyday.” 

Lord Hall positions this as a 'them and us' fight - as if the government didn’t want to give something back to millions of people, when they have just given £145 a year back to the over 75s! But the point is that Lord Hall doesn’t represent those millions of people and the government does. Of course I’m not saying that the government gets it right either, but at least we can vote them out after five years, unlike the BBC management. As for transparency and public consultation, nothing could have been less transparent than Tony Hall’s own appointment, which was done by a tap on the shoulder from the aforementioned Lord Patten. And anyway how could you make this licence fee issue more transparent? A debate in Parliament, which would be won by the Government anyway? Orotund voices on Question Time? A phone in on Radio 5 live? A referendum? Or even something on ITV?

At much the same time the newly crowned John Whittingdale announced the names of the eight people he had appointed to his Privy Council. Around the boy king we have in reverse alphabetical order: Stewart Purvis, formerly Chief Executive of ITN, and Ofcom and City University; Lopa Patel of Diversity UK; Alex Mahon, former Chief Executive of Shine; Darren Henley of the Arts Council; Ashley Highfield, Chief Executive of Johnston Press and former Director of Digital Development at the BBC itself; Andrew Fisher of Shazam; Colette Bowe, former chairwoman of Ofcom; and Dawn Airey, Vice President of Yahoo. So what is there not to like?

A lot, it would seem. The Times reported that “five of the eight have either publicly criticised the BBC or called for its reform”. Well, so has Tony Hall himself, notably in October 2013. But this time battle lines seem to be being drawn up with Lord Hall issuing rallying cries to defend his territory. 

Public enemy number two (after Whittingdale) seems to be Dawn Airey who has always been a bit of a media magnet. Her style could be described as forthright and she has said in the past that the BBC should concentrate on public service and not compete with commercial channels. But then again, everyone who works in the broadcast commercial sector has said something like this at some time or other, particularly when competing with a cast of thousands from Broadcasting House.

She has also allegedly mentioned the dreaded word subscription. But as David Elstein consistently argues, that might be the best way for the BBC in its second century. It’s certainly worth discussing. It’s an issue swept under the carpet, and David believes that the debate was deliberately shelved by the BBC after a Panorama programme in 2005 where 37% of those surveyed wanted some sort of subscription. But a subscription fee to cover add-on services might work perfectly well – a two-tier licence tax if you like. It would certainly reveal what the millions of people want, whom Lord Hall is protecting from their own government! 

But these things cannot be calmly discussed because now there is an alarmist reaction to the Eight, fired up by BBC quotes, not least Lord Hall’s combative talk of a “tough fight ahead”. But why is it a fight? Almost everyone wants to preserve the BBC. Most people value it. Almost everyone wants to see it continue. But in its fear the BBC is setting up this phoney war.

For example, the allegation that John Whittingdale said The Voice programme should be scrapped came from – someone who works at The Voice! John Whittingdale doesn’t seem to have mentioned that particular programme at all. He has allegedly said that chasing 90% ratings is not what the BBC should be doing, but a lot of decent pro-BBC people might agree. We all rejoice when an outsider like Bake Off wins the nation’s hearts – well done! But actively striving to knock ITV off the screen isn’t cricket, when you have a whacking great subsidy and they have declining advertising revenues. Annihilating the competition isn’t what the BBC is there for.

Similarly, in Tony Hall’s announcement of the BBC’s annual report he says “it’s a clash between two different views of the future. Some will argue for a much diminished BBC - a view that’s often put forward by people with their own narrow commercial interests or ideological preconceptions.”

This is stunningly misrepresentative, not to mention a little offensive. How about people who want to argue for a much diminished BBC because they just think the BBC is too big? Or has outgrown its strength? Or is dissipating its value? Or those who want plurality of voices? Or want to decide for themselves what is in their national heritage? Or feel the BBC distorts the market? Or want to see competition? Why do any of these legitimate concerns constitute “narrow commercial interests or ideological preconceptions”? They are legitimate views. Lord Hall seems to be putting up the barricades and saying that if you are not for us, you are against us.   

So are the Whittigdale Eight against the BBC? I know little about Alex Mahon except that she seems to have a very respectable background as an executive with Shine, the company founded by Elisabeth Murdoch, the one with the famous father. Note: she is not at Shine any more, but she does have a PhD in Physics, and is also a medical doctor which seems so amazing for a broadcasting executive, that I fear I may have confused two different Alex Mahons on Wikipedia! I can’t find any quotes from her, against the BBC. 

Darren Henley brings the commercial radio knowledge to the party. In its submission to the CMS Committee, his alma mater Classic FM says “The position of BBC Radio 3 in the marketplace means that the BBC occupies a potentially market-distorting role in terms of the commissioning, broadcast and promotion of live classical music in the UK, either on radio or via digital online broadcasts.” It is useful that one of the Eight has personal experience of competing against BBC radio and this is an issue the BBC can’t ignore. But it doesn’t mean that Radio Three should be closed down or that Darren Henley is anti BBC. 

Lopa Patel, according to The Times, is “Founder and Chief executive of NewAsianPost.com and the think-tank Diversity UK.” Everything I have read about her sounds great and I can’t imagine she has “narrow commercial interests or ideological perceptions” against the BBC. Andrew Fisher looks like a cool dude in his picture, and is chairman of Shazam “an app that helps to identify songs”. His opinion of BBC Playlister would be interesting, but that is just a tiny bit of the BBC empire.

I have worked with or met the others several times. Ashley Highfield is the only person in the Eight who has worked for the BBC, as Director of New Media and Technology. He is now CEO of Johnson Press. In this context the most interesting thing about Ashley is that he worked for the BBC and left by choice. So he sees the corporation as just another step on his career path, which is unusual in itself. So many people who go to work for the BBC become completely besotted with it and can see no career outside it, so we can expect informed objectivity from Ashley. He’s more creative than techie. I was surprised when he went into print media, but if anyone is going to have an innovative approach it is him.    

Colette Bowe was a much respected Chair of Ofcom. She has gone as far as to suggest that the licence fee might be shared by other news providers who might take a small slice to subsidise their own coverage and provide another voice. This recalls Tony Hall’s statement in 2013 that the BBC should be “the pre-eminent provider of trusted news and information, not just locally, not just nationally but all over the world.” Why? There is a very strong argument for having more than one strong national news provider. And raising this issue is not anti BBC. 

The last person I know in the Whittingdale Eight is Stewart Purvis who ran ITN when it really did give the BBC a run for its money on news. Stewart organised, with OurBeeb, the speed debates about the future of the BBC at City University London. At these debates Tony Hall, James Purnell, James Harding, John Birt, Michael Lyons, Christopher Bland, Diane Coyle and Michael Grade all spoke. There was a spirit of free thinking, question and answer, a search for a solution. There were no battle cries and no barricades. His input would be of great value to the BBC.

In my view the Whittingdale Eight would make a good line-up for a panel show. Four men, four women. Seven graduates. Only one Oxbridge. Music, arts, news, regulation, diversity. It’s the advisory group from central casting. They are, as far as I can tell, decent sensible people. They care about the BBC without having a vested or emotional interest. They will be good advisers to King Edward – sorry John Whittingdale - and I for one trust them.

The BBC is facing troubling times as technology erodes live viewing; news becomes more personalised making balance difficult; and the demand for sophisticated international drama and entertainment grows but the demand is met by supply from other outlets. However you look at it spending on public service broadcasting across the board is already diminished, and public service broadcasting itself has to be rethought as the public gets its information in different ways. There is a lot to discuss. So please discuss it, and don’t do battle. The Whittingdale Eight could be the answer not the problem, and with their input, the future of a strong organised, competitive BBC could be assured. Tony Hall needs to talk to them, elicit their views and respect them, not withdraw into his fortress and surround himself with his own intellectual guards. 

Similarly John Whittigdale should not become entrenched. Edward III reigned into his dotage and left chaos in the shape of four competing sons. His reign eventually led to the Cousins' War. We could be heading the same way ourselves and sadly it is the BBC which is drawing up the battle lines at the moment, and if they cry war, then others will react. But like the Yorkists and Lancastrians, British broadcasters are all in the same family and Civil War is not what we want. So please, Lord Hall, stop the rallying cries and get into discussion. The BBC is too important to go down fighting.

If you want to keep OurBeeb debating the BBC, please chip in what you can afford.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData