Public service broadcasting at the cross roads

26 February 2015 – The Culture, Media & Sport (CMS) Committee report on the ‘Future of the BBC’ begins with a back-handed compliment: “Over the last few years, at times, the BBC has been beset by mistakes of its own making but despite this many people judge the broadcaster first and foremost on the quality of its content, on its programmes, on its journalism, on the value for money they consider it delivers, and on the societal and cultural contributions it makes.”

It is a sly way of introducing the most radical proposals for change since the Peacock Committee way back in 1986. Sir Alan Peacock may not have gone as far as the Thatcher government (and Murdoch) wanted him to in throwing Aunty to the wiles of the ‘free market’, but the CMS Committee appear to have taken up his mantle. In 2004 he was proposing the removal of the license fee with the BBC forced to compete with other broadcasters for a share of subscription based public service broadcasting. That is precisely what John Whittingdale’s all party committee is now proposing.

Acknowledging that 96% of the population make use of the BBC’s services each week, his committee queries whether that justifies revenue of £4 billion from licence fee payers, and warns that “the BBC is a powerful player and unchecked there is a danger that it will, by accident or design, crowd out smaller rivals and inhibit their ability to grow.” Murdoch could not have put it better.

They want the licence fee switched to a ‘broadcasting levy’ on every household regardless of whether it contains a radio, TV or computer, based on a German model. The revenue thus generated would be shared between the BBC and competing providers of public service content, such as local programming and children’s broadcasting.

It would no longer be a criminal offence to avoid paying the levy. Instead, BBC and possibly other PSB services would be encrypted, with access only through an add-on device which would eventually be built into all new broadcasting receivers. This is a novel approach to universal access.

The short-lived BBC Trust is for the chop too. The BBC would continue to function under Royal Charter but strategic management would be controlled by a Board of executive and non-executive directors who would also act as champions of the institution. Their efforts would be monitored by an independent Public Service Broadcasting Commission (PSBC) established under statute. The PSBC would also conduct public consultations and advise the BBC Board.

In the main the Committee has reiterated proposals first mooted by the Independent Panel on the Charter Review under Lord Burns in 2005, ideas rejected by the then Labour government.

Meanwhile they want the National Audit Office to have ‘unrestricted access
to the BBC’, and propose that Ofcom take over responsibility for all complaints handling about BBC output and compliance issues. This would do away with the BBC’s much criticised internal complaints procedures.

To keep the BBC on tenterhooks during the election period and way beyond, the all-party Committee proposes their recommendations form the basis of a fresh Charter Review process which could last for more than 2 years. To add salt to the wound they suggest extending the existing Charter from 2017 until 2019.

Timing is all. It will be interesting to see whether the future of the BBC itself becomes an election issue. It is difficult to see how the manifesto writers can ignore it. Media issues – from plurality and ownership issues to the botched responses to the Leveson Inquiry, and from the continuing hacking scandals to police misuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to obtain journalists’ sources – must surely be exercising candidates minds, especially when they can see that journalists are keeping a close eye on their integrity…

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

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