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The Conservatives and the BBC – falling in love again?

Reuters/Peter Nicholls

We who love and cherish the BBC, even from afar – and I am unashamedly one of them – have been awaiting with some anxiety the UK government’s white paper on the future of the corporation.

The culture secretary responsible for the review process leading up to this document, John Whittingdale, had made a number of statements indicating this would be a tough Charter renewal round for the Beeb. With a Conservative majority in parliament, and many Tory MPs hostile to public service media, there were grounds for concern about the outcome.

Well, now the paper has been published, and it turns out to be a rather strong endorsement both of the principle of public service media in general, and of the BBC’s place within it.

After wide consultation of stakeholders, including a survey of 9,000 members of the public, Whittingdale concludes that:

The BBC has a vital and enduring role … It is a revered national institution, and familiar treasured companion.

After a period of serious cuts to its budget, the BBC’s licence fee will be permitted to increase with inflation for more than a decade ahead. That is nearly $8 billion income in 2016, secure into the reasonably long-term future.

All good. But there are conditions attached to the deal.

The BBC has had a difficult few years, faced with criticism over excessive salaries for talent, waste and bloated management, anti-competitive practices, and a dysfunctional culture (exemplified by the Jimmy Savile scandal and the public relations disaster which followed).

Commercial rivals such as the Murdoch-owned UK media were at the forefront of that criticism, as one would expect, but these were concerns expressed widely among the public and other stakeholders. There was consensus that things at the corporation had to change.

Thus, the white paper records huge majorities of the public in support of maintaining a strong BBC, assures us that this is government policy, and then gets into the task of fixing some of the broken bits.

Key points include a requirement for all BBC programming to be “distinctive”, not in the sense that it should become a “market-failure” organisation, but in providing content that has clear “public value”.

Distinctive programmes can have wide appeal … [but] popularity should not be the BBC’s primary objective; its public value must come first.

How program-makers and commissioning editors apply this balance, particularly in primetime entertainment slots, will be interesting to watch. Will the BBC still feel able to produce game shows and reality TV formats of the type also seen on commercial free-to-air, often in the same timeslots? The UK government clearly feels there is too much of this at present.

A major strand in the white paper is to make the BBC much more transparent and accountable – not unreasonable, given the $7.5 billion of public money it receives annually.

The unpopular Trust goes, and independent regulator OFCOM steps into monitor “distinctiveness”, as well as the market impacts of current and proposed BBC activities that might be anti-competitive.

The National Audit Office – a state organ independent of the government of the day – will take over scrutiny of the BBC’s financial operations, holding it to account for its spending.

A unitary board of 12-14 members will be established, with six members appointed by the government through the ostensibly impartial public service appointments process (including one for each UK nation). Whittingdale assures us that the BBC will have a majority of its appointees on the board, but this proposal remains the most controversial, given the potential for politicisation of public appointments.

There will be more commissioning of independent production at the BBC, with only news and news-related current affairs kept exclusively in-house. A $40 million annual fund for new content providers will be established, with four years of funding in the first instance.

There will be less London-centrism, and more resources devoted to representing the UK’s nations and regions, such as Scotland.

Crucially, the BBC will be mandated to support local journalism through sharing of resources and content, the provision of local journalists and material for pooling, and other steps.

The white paper calls for a step-change in how the BBC engages and works with its competitors, seeing itself not so much as a self-interested player in a zero-sum ratings game with the big commercial organisations, but a privileged (because protected from market conditions), public cultural resource within a much larger media ecology where it should facilitate and support as well as compete.

The government will also legislate to make digital users of BBC content pay the licence fee, recognising the shift in consumption patterns away from the box in the corner to the mobile device.

Use of tablets and other devices to access BBC content has increased by 400% since 2009, while the number of UK households with a conventional TV has fallen by 2% in the same period. Bringing that 400% into the licence fee system will strengthen the corporation’s resource base going forward, especially when it is now required to absorb the costs of free access for senior citizens.

Michelle Guthrie and her ABC executives will be poring over the white paper with great interest, one imagines. The challenges facing the ABC are similar in many ways to those now being addressed by the BBC.

As I wrote recently in this space, the ABC could play a bigger role in the support of Australia’s local journalism, and this white paper provides practical examples of how a public service media organisation can do that, some of which might be transferable.

Considerations of “distinctiveness”, “public value” and market impact also apply to the ABC in a time of tough public spending rounds.

The ABC is overwhelmingly popular with the Australian people, like the BBC, and for much the same reasons. But like the BBC too, there can be no complacency in identifying and tackling the challenges generated by our fast-changing media system and ecology in the years and indeed decades ahead. The UK white paper makes a helpful contribution to that effort.

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