Is John Whittingdale the most hostile politician ever to have responsibility for the BBC? When a senior Telegraph journalist called his appointment as culture secretary “an effective declaration of war” on the BBC, some of us thought it excessive.
But the BBC Green Paper published in 2015, and the leaks and comments that have followed, suggest otherwise. At the end of April Whittingdale “joked” to Cambridge University Conservative Association: “If we don’t renew [the Charter], it may be that the BBC will cease to exist, which is occasionally a tempting prospect.” He can barely conceal his disdain for an institution which is held in awe around the world.
May 12 sees the publication of the White Paper which will determine the basis of the next BBC Charter. It will dictate what sort of BBC programmes, BBC journalism and BBC online services are produced – not just for the next 10 years, but well beyond. It has been written by Whittingdale and his closest advisers, none of whom hold any particular affection for the institution. It does not have to be endorsed in parliament, although both houses will hold debates. Parliament cannot save Britain’s public broadcaster.
In the meantime, even the mild-mannered Sir David Attenborough has been moved to warn the government not to play “fast and loose” with the nation’s public broadcaster.
So what might be the weapons of choice for this full-frontal assault? How will this small band of ideologues seek to overcome the massive public, parliamentary and international support for the BBC and diminish it? Selective leaks in government-friendly newspapers over the past few weeks suggest at least four.
1. Reduce scope
As information about the White Paper was leaked to the press in the run-up to publication, headlines in several newspapers known to have an anti-BBC agenda described with barely concealed glee how the BBC would face a “ban” on scheduling popular entertainment programmes in direct competition with rivals.
There will be nothing as explicit. But at a meeting in parliament in February, Whittingdale outlined his thinking: the public purposes which currently define the scope of BBC activities were, he said, “too vague”; he had spoken to “a lot of people” (namely, commercial rivals) who complain that the BBC “can broadcast anything it wants”. Perhaps, he concluded, these purposes need to be more focused?
This is the route through which BBC activities can easily be circumscribed. New governance arrangements are likely to follow the recommendations of Sir David Clementi, published in early 2016, to abolish the BBC Trust. Under this plan, the trust would be replaced by a new Unitary Board which would run the BBC’s everyday activities. Regulatory oversight – ensuring the BBC sticks to charter rules – would be moved to Ofcom.
There is nothing to prevent this government rewriting those rules to include a brief, for example, not to schedule competitively. Those rules can include an obligation on Ofcom to investigate any formal complaint from a commercial competitor, with sanctions available to guarantee compliance.
2. Reduce independence
Whittingdale has suggested in an interview that he sees no problem in the government appointing all but two or three of the new Unitary Board.
This, remember, will be the body which oversees day-to-day editorial and strategic decisions – including issues around political programming and impartiality. If the majority of these editorial decision-makers are to be ministerial appointments, we really are in the realms of a Soviet-style state broadcaster.
3. Cut revenue still further
Another story revealed plans to earmark £100m of BBC licence fee revenue for children’s programming and local news which would be handed to commercial TV companies and rival news organisations.
Again, Whittingdale has previously floated this idea of contestable funding – top-slicing the licence fee for use elsewhere – without ever contemplating the institutional damage such further loss of funding would inflict. The BBC’s own much-prized children’s channels would be bound to suffer. And the most likely beneficiaries of local news subsidies would be the big local press groups which have been closing newspapers to maintain their substantial profit margins.
4. Put it on a short leash
Originally, there was informal talk in government circles of a short-term five-year charter, which would have forced the BBC to go through another bout of hoop-jumping just after the next election. That threat has receded, to be replaced by another which has equal potential for damage: a mid-term “review”.
If this is no more than reporting generally on the new arrangements, it could be acceptable. More likely, however, is a root-and-branch enquiry – again, just after an election which the Conservatives would expect to win – which will scrutinise every aspect of BBC output and once again prioritise the views (and complaints) of its competitors. It would be an effective means of keeping the BBC at heel while ostensibly maintaining its independence.
Each of these proposals would, in their different ways, fundamentally and irrevocably undermine the BBC’s unique cultural and democratic contribution to British public life, to our creative industries and to our talent base.
Whittingdale has always professed to love the BBC. My fear is that he actually loves his vision of the BBC – a significantly smaller, impoverished presence within a market-driven economy where the public interest is subordinated to commercial self-interest. This week, we will discover if he is intent on inflicting his vision on the nation.