Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Treasure our assets

The BBC is one of the UK's treasures.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the Murdoch media – for commercial reasons – and the Daily Mail – for ideological reasons – relentlessly publishing negative stories about it. Like any organisation, it doesn’t get everything right, but the British public have said time and time again that they value the BBC and its independence.

The current Royal Charter for the BBC runs out at the end of this year. The new one will run for 11 years. Unsurprisingly, Conservative MPs and government ministers – whose long-standing hostility to the BBC is on the record – saw the negotiations about the Charter as an opportunity to undermine the BBC’s editorial independence, financial independence, and its core mission. Fortunately, the Tories were forced to backtrack on many of their most extreme proposals for the BBC because they were out of step with the overwhelming majority of the public.

However, there are still real concerns that the Government will seek to influence the BBC’s editorial decision making, and that the broadcaster will come under undue political interference as a result.

Last year, there was shoddy deal between the BBC Trust and then-Chancellor George Osborne which saw the cost of funding free TV licences for the over-75s from the Government to the BBC. This is costing the BBC £1.3bn until 2020 and £750m a year from 2020-21. Quite disgracefully, the Government also transferred responsibility for setting policy on free TV licences to the BBC as well. This change means that the BBC could choose to restrict free TV licences in future without the democratic accountability which governments operate under.

Tory Culture Minister John Whittingdale said that it was ‘debatable’ whether the BBC should be making programmes like Strictly Come Dancing. The resultant uproar forced him to backtrack.  Yes, the BBC should be distinctive, but the Charter’s distinctiveness test should apply to the totality of the BBC’s services not individual programmes.

The BBC’s treatment of Bake Off was exceptional and distinctive. But, in underlining its Charter requirement for financial prudence, the BBC (on our behalf) was absolutely right to refuse to be ripped off in the future. We’ll just have to wait and see what Channel 4 does with the format. Will it all end in custard pies?