Britain moves to curb BBC independence

by Jane Whyatt
Britain’s public service broadcaster the BBC has survived another process of reform without being totally privatised or politicised. New arrangements for the BBC promise a future for the licence fee, protection for the World Service budget and greater diversity in output, reflecting minority ethnic communities and regional differences.

But the reformed governance of the BBC is being attacked by critics.

The BBC Trust will be abolished and replaced by a body with half of the members (6 out of 12 or 13) including the chair and vice chair directly appointed by a government minister.

Professor Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster is scathing about the proposed change: “This would be the first time in BBC's history that the body which oversees day-to-day editorial and strategic decisions, including issues around political programming and contentious investigations, contains a significant number of ministerial appointments. Forget the disingenuous assurances coming from government ‘sources’ (and those parroting their lines) that these appointments will be ‘independent’.

The process will, as the White Paper (new law) explicitly states, be ‘led by the government’. That's a great message to send to Turkey, Hungary and other countries who are being vilified for trying to turn their public broadcasters into state broadcasters.”

“It might have been the time for radical change”

And Robert Beveridge, visiting professor in media studies at the University of Sassari, Sardinia, fears a right-wing political agenda is driving the changes: “Since we have a Conservative government and no realistic prospect of an alternative UK government for the next decade or so, now might have been the time for radical change to the size and scope of the BBC.

Certainly the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport John Whittingdale is on record as seeing the abolition of the BBC as a tempting prospect. Doubtless he said this in jest only, but it was and is an indicator of a commitment to a perspective which sees the BBC as 'an intervention in the market place' and a preference for commercialisation and private enterprise rather than celebrating the BBC for what it is or can be and has been at time: the Best of Britain.”

Beveridge campaigns for quality broadcasting and accountability to audiences through the Voice of the Listener and Viewer.

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The BBC White Paper is not bad news at all - Comment from Martin Hoffman

Ethnic diversity as goal

Both Beveridge and Barnett welcome the White Paper’s commitment to increasing diversity. The idea is that all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom (Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland) must continue to receive news and programming that reflects their different needs and perspectives, and the minority ethnic communities across the whole UK also get better coverage and representation.

But Barnett, who wrote “The Battle for the BBC” and has taken part in top-level consultation on public service broadcasting for more than 30 years, points out that the mechanism for achieving the greater diversity is to open up the BBC to greater competition from independent production companies and commercial rivals. This brings risks, he says:
“The BBC's creative freedom to make popular entertainment programmes will be gradually curtailed. It won't happen overnight. But over the next 11 years, the BBC will be pushed inexorably toward the smaller, more compliant, more worthy and less patronised broadcaster that John Whittingdale has always craved.”

Whittingdale defends White Paper

This refers to the political perspective on the role of the media that John Whittingdale as a young MP developed in his role as Political Secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It was a time of violent upheaval when the Thatcher government allied with media owners such as Rupert Murdoch to promote commercial interests and diminish the role of pubic service and trades unions.

Now in his role as Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, Whittingdale leads a Department that is nicknamed “The Ministry of Fun” in some British newspapers. He has experienced media coverage over the past two years which – on his own admission – has tested his faith in the freedom of the media.

Revelations about the Minister’s private life and relationships have been presented in the papers as a series of ‘sex scandals’. They have even provoked rude jokes at his expenses from parliamentary colleagues in the House of Commons and at an official press conference.

Whittingdale has laughed off the jibes and robustly defends the new plans for the BBC:

“We have taken on board extensive views and evidence from those who watch and listen to the BBC - those who love it, those who can be frustrated by it and those who feel underserved by it.

These reforms will embolden the BBC to take risks, to create confidently and unashamedly the highest quality, distinctive content for all audiences. It will provide the foundations for a stronger, more independent, more distinctive BBC that will inform, educate and entertain for many years to come,” he says.

That mantra ”inform, educate and entertain” was coined by the BBC’s first Director General Lord Reith. He famously defended the BBC against Government interference and propaganda during the General Strike of 1926.
And when Reith persuaded the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to preserve the BBC’s independence, Chancellor Winston Churchill was outraged at the decision, which he called “monstrous”.  Ninety years later, there could be an even bigger test yet to come for political independence of the ‘Beeb’.