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Over by Christmas – the non-debate that is BBC Charter renewal

Who is talking about BBC Charter renewal? Relatively few people. And it’s not too soon to start.

The old BBC television Centre - wikimedia

The BBC is one of the most important institutions in the country. It’s established by Royal Charter. The Charter is renewed regularly, but it’s expected to be renegotiated around every ten years. This time around, the terms of the renewal are expected to be complete and operational before the first of January 2017. That means it all has to be done and dusted by the autumn of 2016.

Last time around, going towards the new Charter for January 2007, information started hitting the internet about how the BBC was dealing with this negotiation as early as March 2003. This was three and half years before the Charter was renewed on September 19th 2006. The BBC already, at the start of 2003, had formed five major workstreams dealing with Charter renewal negotiations. The workstreams were called Changing World; Purposes; Services; Shape; and the more mundanely named Funding. Each workstream had one or two leaders and the overall Charter renewal project was sponsored by the BBC's Director of Public Policy and the Director of Strategy. Most of these people have gone now (it was eleven years ago) but they were BBC ‘big beasts’ then, and the press release from March 2003 reveals an extensive corporate campaign, started years in advance of the new Charter.

This time round, if you google BBC Charter renewal the first thing you might find is the very same press release dated March 2003! You have to go scroll a long way down the screen before you find any current reference to the debate around BBC Charter renewal circa 2016.

There are now only a maximum 33 months to go before what is commonly expected to be Charter renewal deadline. In fact the time scale is much shorter if the Coalition Government wants to get this done before the next election (as all the pundits say). That would mean getting it tied up before May 2015 – just 15 months away. So why is the BBC so low key, compared to last time? In fact it is the House of Commons which has kicked off the process, with the CMS Select Committee’s session called “The Future of the BBC”.

Looking in mid January, the first public reference I found to the 2016 charter renewal was in the trade press. It was posted on January 14th in Broadcastnow – the online version of Broadcast magazine, by Jake Kanter. Kanter says “Charter renewal negotiations are likely to begin in earnest this year in the hope that resolutions can be reached before the May 2015 general election….” This piece appeared after the deadline for written depositions to the CMS Select Committee, and contained the only reference to them which I can find. The deadline for written depositions was December 2013, but the prior invitation from the CMS Select Committee for depositions about the BBC received virtually no publicity.

If you really search, or have been tipped off as to how to navigate your way around, you can find all the written submissions to the CMS Select Committee on their website. There are 82 depositions, 33 from individuals and the other 49 from a pretty standard group of vested interest organisations and campaigning groups. I looked at every one of the 82 depositions (to say I read them all right through is going too far) and found that only 12 out of 82 seriously queried the principle of the licence fee, and some of those might have been written in green ink! A further few discussed the BBC’s use of the licence fee without questioning the fee itself. A quick straw poll of the depositions revealed surprisingly little demand for change. Yes, the independent producers are exercised about WoCC – The Window of Creative Competition. At present 50% of BBC programmes have to be made in-house by BBC producers. Obviously the independent producers, represented by Pact, want the quota relaxed and perceive a chink in the armour of the BBC Trust’s deposition which says -

at this point we do not have a firm view on whether supply quotas or guarantees continue to be necessary in their current form or at what level they might best be set.

So lots of excitement for exercised indies. However, that is not the sort of issue that is going to set public debate alight. But news coverage gets the public going every time. ITV have put in one of the most comprehensive and interesting depositions to the Select Committee, particularly with regard to the news. ITV says -

 

People are right to be concerned that the BBC’s news provision, unless carefully monitored, risks the self-reinforcing dominance of a single editorial voice. Such relative scale may not ultimately be in the interests of the BBC or of plurality in the UK.

 

Many journalists have voiced this concern, not least the BBC’s former Head of News (interestingly the head of a workstream way back in 2003) Roger Mosey. But what on earth is the DCMS going to do? There is a lot of talk along these lines in the chattering classes, but nobody actually knows how to deal with it. Deconstructing BBC News seems too drastic, and funding more competition like ITN seems unlikely. Broadcast magazine says in the January 17th issue, that all this has brought ‘top-slicing back to haunt the BBC’. The headline is probably too dramatic. It boils down to ITV, C4 and COBA (the commercial broadcasters association) making varied calls for the licence fee funds to be redistributed more fairly, or the BBC’s wings to be clipped. For example, Classic FM says -

Any incursions into digital delivery of classical music by the BBC – either via Radio 3 or through other means - should be closely monitored and controlled. At present, these appear to be unfettered.

Channel 4 suggests that the BBC partners with other public service broadcasters to develop technology (shades of Kangaroo). ITV speculates about funding “third party news suppliers”, as had been planned by the last government and Ofcom until the election intervened. COBA at least thinks top slicing should be a major debate, but frankly, looking through the depositions, these are sabre rattling proposals which don’t have much traction and, importantly they do not question the principle of the licence fee at all. Overall, I have a sense of the BBC being in control, quietly and without fuss, of all the arguments.

Why do I think this? Well, to get back to the depositions, there are two from the BBC itself. One is only 6,500 words long, with 67 footnotes. The other, from the BBC Trust, is only 5,407 words long with 6 footnotes. Neither comes anywhere near the amount of work and angst committed to the last Charter renewal exercise. In fact the tone is summed up by the following lines from the BBC Trust’s deposition:-

As things stand, none of the technological change of the past few years has undermined the existing funding mechanism ……. However, it may be possible to improve the way the licence fee is defined and collected in future

So that makes any debate about the licence fee a discussion about operations. That’s a neat bit of distraction. Actually, about half a dozen thoughtful depositions talk about de-criminalising non-payment of the licence fee. This is actually a very important tip-of-the-iceberg issue because it obliquely touches on the idea that people no longer need a live TV feed to get TV entertainment. But that is not what most of the de-criminalisers are referring to. They are referring to the BBC’s draconian methods of collecting the fee. Criminalisation, which costs the BBC nothing, means the average fine on conviction is only £153. Peanuts. Well yes, the Trust says laconically, it may be possible to improve “the way the license fee is defined and collected” But this is not the point. The point is whether it should be defined and collected at all.

In fact, the BBC position on everything, on the whole, seems astonishingly insouciant in a period which has seen the Savile scandal, the pay-offs scandal, the Newsnight scandal, and the continuing scandal of the under-representation of women (not that many of the great and good are very bothered about that!) In fact the BBC Trust deposition says complacently:-

The Trust’s experience has been that it is difficult to put a complete stop to any significant parts of BBC activity, such is the support and loyalty shown by audiences to the services that they use every day or every week.

So it’s impossible to change or cut anything because of public protest. Mmmm. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, those of you who write depositions from commercial radio decrying the way the funded BBC takes the oxygen away from your marketplace.

But there are some mild concessions from the BBC, probably prompted by the redoubtable Margaret Hodge at the Public Accounts Committee….

we accept that in some areas there has not always been a sufficiently clear distinction between the role of the Trust and the role of the BBC’s Executive Board, and that a perceived overlap has caused confusion and undermined confidence.

Too true! So what will the BBC do about it?

In future, we will be clearer about the separate functions that the two arms of the BBC need to perform. We will change the way that the Trust and the Executive Board work and behave in order to fulfil those separate roles.

Ah, that’s all right then. They’ll change the way they work, and behave better. I used to say that, after every school report. I hope the BBC Trust has a better success rate at self improvement than I did. But, joking apart, there is something odd here. An organisation which eleven years ago committed huge funds (however self-servingly) to preserving its position, says virtually nothing in its own defence in 2013 except that the public seem to like it. Well, they would wouldn’t they. Despite everything that has happened in the past two years, the BBC seems to feel no threat whatsoever. In fact the Corporation is so secure, it can say -

The scope and scale of the BBC will ultimately be determined by the purposes set for it and the amount of funding provided to it. These are largely questions for the Government to address at Charter Review…... 

Either they don’t mind rolling over to be trounced by the Tories, or they are supremely confident. But no organisation can be that sure of itself, even with a blameless record. Could this confidence be because something has been going on behind the scenes? Could it be that some sort of pact has already been entered into with the BBC and the Coalition government? Did they all spend time chatting together at Christmas parties, and decide that, really, another great discussion about the validity of the licence fee et al was just a waste of everyone’s time? Does this explain why there has been so little publicity about the CMS Select Committee?

I spoke to a couple of media journalists who acknowledged that the fact the CMS Select Committee began taking oral depositions from the ‘great and the good’ this week had almost slipped underneath their radar. Why was the deadline for written submissions reached, before many people even knew about it? Are 82 submissions, several from people with a personal axe to grind, really representative of how people in the UK feel about the BBC? I could get 82 representations about dog mess in my local park without trying very hard. Where, for example, are the press depositions? There is only one, from the Scottish Newspaper Society. There are fewer than five depositions from anyone associated with the many Universities which teach media. Is everyone, from a demoralised press, via an exhausted post-REF academia, to a bamboozled public, just hoping the BBC issue will go away?

And here’s another question. Pundits are saying that the Coalition government wants to have Charter renewal sorted out before the election. But why? Charter renewal isn’t necessary until autumn 2016, eighteen months after an election. Wouldn’t the Coalition be better served leaving this problem to the next administration to be sorted out? Why the rush? That, combined with the BBC’s strangely super-cool approach, might suggest some sort of unwritten understanding. The government must see the £5 billion garnered by the BBC as a pretty useful nest egg. So are they likely to endorse it, and pass the bunce and the status quo, on to a possible Labour government? I don’t think so. Alternatively, the Coalition could be planning to grant the licence fee on the nod, with some swingeing provisos that the BBC administer their own top-slicing, not to other broadcasters, but towards funding more services for the elderly, the micro-regions, and the Foreign Office.

The Coalition government has ‘previous’ on this. From 1988 to 2010, the licence fee was increased annually, with the intention of keeping it broadly protected from inflation. The BBC voluntarily gave up a planned 2% increase in 2010, in the hope of avoiding an actual cut in the imminent public spending review being undertaken by the new coalition government. However, within a month of that gesture, the Coalition froze the licence fee at £145-50 till 2017, in a brief and intense negotiation with the BBC in October 2010, which saw major additional spending obligations assumed by the BBC, like digital switchover, local TV, the World Service, and monitoring at Caversham. No wonder that this time the government wants to rush through Charter renewal with minimum debate and get their hands on some of that licence fee dosh. Would free telly for the over 70s, administered by the BBC, help the Conservatives win the election? Cynical, moi?

But this is your money and your licence fee being used for things which arguably it shouldn’t, administered by an organisation which arguably shouldn’t be doing it. If you want to be as involved in Charter renewal as the British Naturists who make some interesting points about costume drama, or the Cornwall Community Standards Association who are exercised about sexual morality on screen, it is, sadly, too late for you to write anything down. I understand (but not from the website) that the CMS Select Committee will be holding more hearings, as is their practice, on February 11th, with past BBC grandees testifying. I think this means that John Whittingdale, the Chair of the group, asks people to attend. Some excellent members of the ‘great and the good’, who did not write depositions but who are the ‘usual suspects’, are giving oral evidence, but there doesn’t seem to be a public list of them and there most certainly doesn’t seem to be much public debate.

For those of us who aren’t great and good, this is how it will work. The CMS Select Committee will take oral evidence by invitation over the next six weeks. The CMS Select committee has eleven members, nine men and two women, all backbench MPs (though one, Ben Bradshaw, was once Secretary of State for the DCMS). They have ‘persuasive’ powers only. They will, after hearing the evidence they call for, draft a report. The report will be published, and it is expected to come out in March 2014. The conventional procedure is that government (in the shape of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) then has two months to respond to this report with proposals. The BBC can respond to this in turn. Maybe that will cause debate, but the report will be done and the response already made. In the end, the government will dictate the terms of Charter renewal, at its discretion, perhaps based on 82 depositions and some invited guests. Unless ITV, COBA, Channel 4 and the commercial radio lobby have some heavy hitters in the wings, it could, indeed, be all over by Christmas with very little discussion of the licence fee or the BBC’s role in the future.

It is this which worries me most. It seems amazingly blinkered, to the point of blindness, for the future of the licence fee to be taken for granted. The future is largely ignored in the depositions, which deal with the concerns of groups fixed in the present. But it is vital that the CMS Select Committee look at the way people are consuming media, and at the time-bomb on which the BBC is sitting. The Trust may say “the number of people who do not need to pay the licence fee because they watch no live TV content is very small – well under 2 per cent” but that number will grow, actively helped by the BBC’s I-player policy and its focus on a technocratic future. In 2026, around a hundred years since the BBC’s formation, that 2% could have grown to 20%. We should be asking now whether the licence fee model will still work next time round. The answer is – most probably not. Maybe, at the moment, the BBC is buying time and income in the knowledge that the rationale for such income will decline, and the government is calculatedly grabbing short-term funds created by a tax which has no future. But ten years isn’t long and the debate should be starting now about whether licence fee funding is a sustainable model. It’s part of the whole debate, but the whole debate isn’t happening. It is actually nearly thirty years since we had a formal public inquiry by a specially appointed committee, into the BBC and the role of public service broadcasting (that was the Peacock Committee).

 

I’d feel an awful lot happier if I thought that the issues – declining conventional viewing, blanket news values, production quotas, stifling competition, top slicing, BBC administration of public funds (but not on content or development), and the all important issue of the viability of the licence fee – were exercising more than just 49 interested bodies, 33 individuals and a committee of 11 MPs. If we want a BBC in the future we need to be discussing a long term strategy for funding it when the rationale for the licence fee has gone (and that may be sooner than we think) and not short-sightedly trousering the money while the going is still good.

We all need to talk – and soon.

 

About the author

Professor Lis Howell is Director of Broadcasting in the Journalism Department at City University London. She was Head of News at Border Television and won a Royal Television Society award for leading the coverage of the Lockerbie disaster.

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