“The BBC is a public broadcaster independent of government, not a state broadcaster like they have in those bastions of democracy, Russia or North Korea. All of this is under threat right now, make no mistake… the secretary of state is telling the BBC when to schedule main news bulletins, what programmes it should make and what programmes it shouldn’t. This is really scary stuff, folks, not something I thought I’d see in my lifetime in this country.”
These words from Peter Kominsky, director of Wolf Hall, came at last week’s Television BAFTAs. From the first speech of the night, all guns seemed to be trained on John Whittingdale and his impending White Paper regarding the fate of the BBC. As an outspoken critic of the licence fee, public services and other things that benefit the members of the public who aren’t too busy having relations with a dominatrix ‘ignored’ by the press and not declaring their expenses, Whittingdale is already a divisive figure. He’s sat on and chaired government committees since he became an MP in 1992, and now sits on the front bench in the House of Commons as Culture Secretary.
Winning his seat the year before I was born, John Whittingdale had always been my local MP before I came to university. A thoroughly absent politician in a southern seat held by the Conservatives unwaveringly since the 1950’s, the MP for Maldon was the shining example of disenfranchised younger voters not turning up at the polling stations and residents voting as they’ve always done. A swell of UKIP voters were no challenge for him in the 2015 election, even in the hotbed of the country’s of Eurosceptics.
There’s a lot of reasons I’m not a fan of the man; one is still that the 93 bus never ran on time (and I’d miss my connection, leaving 11-year old me stood at a bus stop with the big kids like a plum for an hour, I might never get over this) and others are his shambles of a voting record in the House of Commons. Highlights include opposing equal gay rights, same-sex marriages, equality & human rights bills, smoking bans, and remaining absent on votes for a transparent government. On the upside, he’s also in favour of welfare & housing benefit cuts, fox hunting, selling state-owned forests, and reducing the powers of local councils whilst making them more financially responsible for their constituents.
He is nothing if not principled.
Back to present day, and Secretary of State, as well as Chair of the Committee for Culture, Media & Sport, he is responsible for the review of the BBC. The charter comes up for renewal every few years, depending on the terms of the previous one. Before it was revealed in full on Thursday, amid comments that the full privatisation of the BBC was ‘A tempting prospect’ and that ‘The bones of my victims make for a great wholemeal loaf’, Whittingdale’s White Paper was rumoured to be full of bad tidings. There was a lot that could have happened, but the cruxes of the matter were the cost and the identity of the institution. The BBC had already been struck by changes to how its funding had to be sourced under Whittingdale’s appointment, and the Saturday-night ratings battle was becoming increasingly basic as a tired X Factor took on a limping Voice for a listing number of viewers, so any of the possible attacks being whispered about could have proved fatal.
But then Thursday came. And passed. And there were no outcries or riots or people chaining themselves to the wrong BBC Broadcasting House. The paper that was announced (and you can read it in full here, the wonders of transparency eh, John?) lacked much of the feared edge that had been discussed and in places even seemed to support the BBC. The extension of the charter for 11 years was unexpectedly momentous, as it guaranteed future reviews not to fall in an election year, saving it from the prospect of becoming a political pawn. The licence fee was even assured to rise with inflation and be set to fund the BBC for another six years.
The BBC Trust is due to be disbanded, with regulatory powers passed to Ofcom and managerial duties to be taken by a new unitary board. While it doesn’t sound great, remember that BBC Trust members were selected by the Queen from recommendations, essentially making it a little House of Lords. This new board could have been a more democratic, progressive step, but included in it’s conditions is that six of its 14 members will be appointed by the government, and the other eight are for the BBC to decide. It’s a majority, but a slim one. The effect this has will be revealed in time but it doesn’t have that ‘fresh, free of the hammy hand of Cameron’ smell you’d want for a public service broadcaster.
Creatively, the ‘distinctiveness’ of the BBC came under some fire. It might seem strange for an internationally recognised media institution to be taking image advice from a man who looks this menacing, but things need a bit of a shake up on the schedule. The MP called for ‘greater levels of ambition’ on the main radio and television channels, which is definitely required in some places. Tim Wonnacott has finally stepped down after 1,200 Bargain Hunts (having given away literally tens of pound in that time), and the parade of game shows and Coast snippets are no longer enough to stop people watching Jeremy Kyle in ITV and classic war films on Channel 4. Radio 1 has been a mixed bag of shows for years now, having never really recovered from the loss of Chris Moyles on the morning show and hit-and-miss attempts to reach a younger audience. Scott Mills is a tracksuit away from filling Tim Westwood’s shoes. Nick Grimshaw’s ascension to the nation’s Marmite has been more rapid than anticipated. Work to be done there, then.
Those paid over £450,000 by the Beeb are to have their names published, and other names to be released in salary bands for viewers to see where their money is going. If this reveals that the licence fee has been paying to keep Cumberbatch in silk socks while he doesn’t film Sherlock for a little longer then there could be trouble, but at least it’s an honest move.
Lastly, the crosshairs turned to the BBC iPlayer, and the hammer has fallen; either the iPlayer or a new service alongside it will have a monthly fee. No time frame has been put forward for this in the paper, but keep your eyes peeled; the loopholes are already tightening. If you’ve been watching live TV with a bit of a delay to avoid breaking the law, good news! It will soon be breaking the law.
This White Paper was a toothless step in a Conservative direction, doing little for now and planning much for the future. There seems to be different plans from different members of government at the moment; some look like they’re gearing up for another Con win in 2020, others seems to be preparing for the worst. Whittingdale is the latter, listing five-year deadlines and future plans to be followed through by whomever wins his office in a few reshuffles time. His treatment of the BBC seems hugely dispassionate, squeezing what departments he can (the move of BBC Three to online-only was the casualty of the last cuts) to prove his credentials as a deficit-busting team player in Camp Cameron.
Commentators were unsure what they wanted to see out of this announcement; on one hand, the BBC succumbing to the free market as a fully-privatised company in a similar manner to ITV would be a nightmare. On the other, it would make gripping news. The outcome seems to be worse than both, as we wait another five years for some terms of this new charter to expire and sweat it out until then. With the fate of the BBC still very much undecided in a quickly evolving mediascape, I can only imagine this sort of stalling will be another hill for the corporation to climb. At least the World Service isn’t being shut down.