The government’s BBC white paper presents reasonably sensible proposals

The government’s white paper on the BBC (“A BBC for the future: a broadcaster of distinction”) is available to read here. For a white paper, it is attractively presented. It puts forward a range of thoughtful and carefully calibrated proposals for the future.

I’ve appended the text of the paper’s main recommendations at the bottom of this article.

Paddy Ashdown has blasted “changing the BBC’s governance rules that (mean the government) could appoint the new executive’s Chair and deputy.”

Perhaps I have fallen for weasel words in the white paper, but if I compare the current BBC Trustees appointments regime:

BBC Trustees are appointed by the Queen on advice from DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) ministers through the Prime Minister. When new Trustees are needed the posts are publicly advertised. Trustees are chosen on merit and the process is regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

– with the new process proposed on page 50 of the white paper:

a Public Appointments process, led by the government,will be used to appoint the Chair, Deputy Chair and members for each of the four nations of the UK (a total of six members). Both the remaining non-executive members and executive members of the board will be appointed by a nominations committee of the board.

– then, if anything, the future board will be even more independent than the current Trust. Have I missed something?

Mind you, Paddy is being faithful to our last general election manifesto, which said:

To promote the independence of the media from political influence we will remove Ministers from any role in appointments to the BBC Trust…

I am somewhat surprised that the government propose no fundamental change to the licence fee (aside from bringing BBC iPlayer into its remit and suggesting some piloting of limited subscription programmes), proposing an inflation-linked rise for the first five years of the new charter period.

John Whittingdale was supposed to be the BBC’s archenemy, brought in by Cameron to wield the axe. Instead, with this white paper, he has turned out to be the BBC’s saviour.

We’ve recently had an excellent heated debate on the BBC and the licence fee under this post.

Looking back in our archive to 2008, I am reminded that we had a similarly heated debate on the subject, plus a readers’ poll, in that year.

It is an interesting subject. I can quite understand that some Liberals are very opposed to a licence fee. It troubles me that someone can be criminalized for watching, or recording from, live TV while not paying their licence fee (the white paper considers this subject in detail, concluding that the current regime should not be changed).

It is unfair that you have to pay a licence fee even if you want to view or record non-BBC live TV and are among the 3% of UK adults who manage to somehow live your life without listening or viewing the BBC’s output in some shape or form each week.*

It also troubles me that the BBC is so vast and wide in its remit. Online recipes are only the tip of the iceberg. One of the reasons, perversely, that the licence fee does, to an extent, justify itself is because the BBC gets into so many nooks and crannies of British life that it is virtually impossible to avoid consuming it in some shape or form. (An astonishing 97% of UK adults use the BBC each week – on average for an incredible 18 hours).

It should be remembered that the BBC licence fee is Liberal Democrat policy, so far as I can discern, using the excellent Liberal Democrat Newswire policy paper archive.

And when you look at the alternatives, they are not attractive:

  • Going along the taxation route would give the government direct control over the BBC, leading to a deterioration in its independence.
  • A subscription based service wouldn’t bring in enough money to support the BBC properly and would undermine commercial providers. For example, Radio 3 wouldn’t get enough money to continue as it is.
  • Advertising to support the BBC would undermine all the commercial providers and do away with one of the main reasons people like the BBC.

Against that we have a BBC which is trusted, popular and respected. It provides a very broad range of public service broadcasting which is generally distinctive. It broadly informs, educates and entertains very well, especially when compared to the alternatives.

That said, the white paper presents some sensible ways forward for reform. Its proposal for the BBC programmes to be regulated by Ofcom were proposed some time ago by the Liberal Democrats (Policy paper 49, page 5).

I would also commend to you the series of opinion soundings presented at the end of the white paper document.

* It should be noted, however, that, even when the BBC iPlayer “loophole” is closed as suggested by this white paper, you will still be able to legally avoid paying the licence fee and consume hours of Video-on-demand (VOD) Netflix, Amazon TV, Sky, Channel 4, Channel 5, National Geographic etc etc plus listen to hours of BBC radio and read masses of BBC web pages. Indeed, unless the government’s anti-“loophole” mechanisms are extremely clever, I’d wager that you will still be able, without a TV licence, to watch hours of BBC programmes, including Eastenders and Top Gear, via VOD UKTV, which carries the Watch, Alibi, Gold and Dave channels.

Here are the key recommendations of the white paper:

Enable the BBC to make even more great programmes for audiences to enjoy, by incentivizing more distinctive output that informs, educates and entertains.
Create a strong unitary board for the BBC, enhancing its independence. The board will be fully responsible for the governance of the BBC and the delivery of its services. In contrast to the BBC Governors and the BBC Trust, this new governance structure will see the BBC responsible for appointing at least half of the board members.
Appoint Ofcom as the external independent regulator of the BBC, as recommended by the independent review by Sir David Clementi. Ofcom is the widely respected and experienced media and telecommunications regulator.
Increase the licence fee level in line with inflation for five years from 2017/18 so that the BBC can continue to provide high quality, distinctive content for all audiences. It will consequently remain one of the best-funded public service broadcasters in the world.
Ensure the BBC’s market impacts are assessed more widely and effectively by providing Ofcom with powers to investigate any aspect of BBC services.
Open the BBC’s content commissioning to greater competition, by removing the in‑house guarantee for all television content except news and news-related current affairs. This will provide hundreds of millions of pounds of new opportunities for the independent sector, help drive efficiency savings and provide new creative opportunities for the BBC. The government also provides in-principle support for BBC plans to spin-off its in-house production into a new subsidiary, BBC Studios, opening up new opportunities to produce programmes for the BBC and other broadcasters in the UK and internationally.
Establish a new contestable public service content fund to create new opportunities for others to provide the best public service broadcasting content in the UK and enhance plurality in the provision of public service content.
Enhance the efficiency of the BBC by expecting the board to investigate issues relating to excessive management layers, and overall staffing levels. This could deliver significant further efficiency savings by the end of the next Charter.
Promote greater transparency within the BBC through enabling licence fee payers to understand how the BBC spends its budget between different types of programming, and through new transparency on remuneration of talent paid over £450,000.
Deliver a stronger role for the National Audit Office to scrutinise BBC spending and value for money. The National Audit Office will become the BBC’s financial auditor given the £3.7 billion of public money that it spends. The scope of its value for money investigations will be explored further.
Help make the BBC a better partner, with a new focus on partnership in the Charter. The BBC should leverage its size and scale to enhance and bolster the creative industry sector by working more in productive partnership with UK players of all sizes so that others can benefit more extensively from its expertise and reputation.
Ensure that the BBC serves all nations and regions in the UK through a clear focus on the BBC’s obligations in the new operating licence regime, clear board-level responsibilities, and a continued commitment to the out-of-London production targets.
Enshrine a commitment to diversity in the Charter, as part of a new overall commitment to ensuring the BBC serves all audiences. The BBC should be at the forefront of representing diversity both on and off screen.
Ensure the BBC supports and invigorates local news provision across the UK, through the delivery of proposals to work in partnership with the local news industry to support local democracy, including an additional 150 local news journalists.
Embed the core principle of the impartiality of the BBC in its overall mission to ensure it remains the most trusted provider of high quality news for audiences in the UK and abroad.
Establish an 11-year Charter to 2027, separating Charter Review from the political cycle and enhancing the BBC’s independence.
Introduce a new regularised process for setting the licence fee, giving the BBC the financial certainty it needs by setting the licence fee every five years and ensuring that future licence fee settlements can be informed by independent advice for the benefit of licence fee payers.
Modernise the licence fee by requiring all those who consume BBC on-demand content (e.g. on BBC iPlayer) to pay the licence fee, introducing more flexible payment plans and taking forward recommendations from David Perry QC’s review of television licence fee enforcement. The Charter will also empower the BBC to pilot some elements of subscription in addition to their current services.
Provide greater freedom for the BBC to manage its own budgets by phasing out protected funding for broadband (£150 million a year) and local television (£5 million a year), while protecting the World Service, which brings high quality and impartial news to global audiences including where free speech is limited.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • Richard Underhill 1st Jun '16 - 12:03pm

    We should be thankful for all the hard work here, but something is missing. debates about the future of the BBC are conducted live on BBC TV, radio, website, etc and broadcast.
    Follow Laura K. She might have tweeted on the subject. She suspected that the government is backing down on a variety of subjects because of the EU referendum, or delaying decisions, such as Heathrow / Gatwick / Boris Island.
    Jim Callaghan commented that he had more power and better information when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer than when he was Prime Minister.
    The BBC has taken a double hit:
    1) pay for the overseas broadcasts instead of FCO, possibly improving independence
    2) pay for TV licences for the over 75s, saving George Osborne money without helping licence fee payers.
    The consequences include Formula 1 going to Channel 4, a service interrupted by adverts, no coverage (so far) of the French Open Tennis (one channel on ITV4) np coverage of the Champions League final (unannounced highlights late on ITV) cancellation of the brief but effective news service on the Red Button, … and more repeats / highlights programmes and another chance to see (the best of which included Zoo Quest with David Attenborough in black and white).

  • Richard Underhill 1st Jun '16 - 12:10pm

    More power to Paddy.

  • I’m really very disappointed by this.

  • There’s no way John Whittingdale has suddenly seen the light on BBC funding. If you dig deeper, [follow the money], Capita Plc have the contract to collect the TV license fee up until 2019. I suspect he’s taken legal advice, in that messing with the details of that Capita contract, or breaking it early could get very costly? You can pretty much guarantee that when that contract with Capita ends, it will not get renewed,….ever!!. And frankly,.. it’s good riddance to the ‘medieval’ BBC funding model.

  • Evan Harris 2nd Jun '16 - 7:38am

    “if anything, the future board will be even more independent than the current Trust. Have I missed something?”

    Yes, you have. This is not the Trust anymore – it is a unitary Board which means – unlike the Trust – it will have direct control of operational matters and indirect control of editorial.

    That makes a huge difference.

    That is why Paddy, Jane Bonham-Carter and Don Foster have all made the same point – echoed in our manifesto.. that there is no role for political appointees on the BBC Board (or on that of OfCom for that matter).

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