Nick Harris explains the significance of the new white paper.
The publication of the White Paper on the BBC’s new Royal Charter may look like an innocent refresh of our nation’s public broadcaster. Indeed, it is less extreme than ideas like BBC primetime Saturday television being moved to favour rivals like ITV which were being bandied about. But underneath the reforms there is a deeper shift going on in BBC policy. And we have all heard the speculation about the obsolete licence fee and assertions that the BBC will be made redundant in a world of online streaming television through burgeoning broadcasters like Amazon and Netflix. So what has the government really done?
The Licence Fee
Despite the rumblings among the media commentariat there has been no abolition of the BBC’s age old licence fee, and the government has even ordained to allow the BBC to raise it in line with inflation conversely to the last five years when the freeze has cost the BBC dear and in part led to the loss of programming like Formula 1. However, John Whittingdale did say that he welcomed the ‘BBC’s intention to explore whether additional revenue could be raised at home or abroad from additional subscription’. This comes along with the revelation that BBC iPlayer will no longer be accessible without payment of the licence fee. This is, according to some, an experimentation into the viability of the BBC under a subscription service as perhaps a cable channel abroad, where it does already have a significant following, and as an optional subscription service here. This is not an irrecoverable step though as Whittingdale has made it clear that non-payment of the licence fee is still illegal and that it will continue to be the BBC’s main source of revenue for the next eleven years of this royal charter. The figures of those still watching iPlayer under this system will yield more information on the viability of a subscription system though we may have to wait until the next royal charter in 2027 to know for sure.
A more controversial decision has been to scrap the BBC Trust (essentially the BBC’s governing body) in favour of what Whittingdale called a ‘strong, unitary board’. The nature of this currently faceless board is unclear although we do know that the BBC will have the right to appoint at least half of members whilst the government will be appointing around six itself. This move has been criticised as something of a subversion of the BBC’s independence but it is not as sinister and Orwellian as it has been described since appointees to the BBC Trust are already made on the advice of government ministers. Another move has been to make Ofcom the BBC’s entire external regulator like other broadcasters covering areas like malpractice and bias. The latter of these may be the most interesting to the current government since many backbenchers seem to spend all their time nursing old wounds about the BBC’s coverage of the Miners’ Strike and the Falklands War in the 80s.
The Nature of the BBC
In a more eye-catching move the BBC must now reveal which of its stars earn over £450,000 which may reveal something about the thickness of Gary Lineker and Graham Norton’s wallets but will, I am sure, be nothing but academic curiosity to much of the BBC workforce and to the viewing public. The other change worth noting is the new wording of the BBC’s charter to ‘enshire diversity’ within its programming along with a load of target statistics for BAME, LGBT and other such minority groups with their own acronyms within the BBC.
So that is it, in short. On the face of it, it does seem that the government is treading water with the BBC for now. Obviously, the Opposition have criticised the government’s changes because when you are the Opposition you haven’t much else to do. But the Conservatives have taken the safe option. The new board and the Ofcom regulation may be a couple of pieces of red meat to throw at the perpetually rabid backbench Tory wolves, but the subscription experiment seems sensible in a world of changing television. Other changes seem par for the course and the government has even helped to secure the BBC’s funding to some degree by removing the iPlayer loophole which had cost our beloved broadcaster millions.