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Whittingdale new Culture Secretary

John Whittingdale – an oft-outspoken critic of the BBC – has been named as the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport as Prime Minister David Cameron continues to reshape his Cabinet following the outright Conservative win at the UK General Election. He replaces Sajid Javid, who has moved to Business, Innovation and Skills.

Whittingdale is well versed in his brief, having acted as Chairman of the influential Commons culture select committee in the last parliament.

His appointment is likely to add fuel to the argument against the current funding and governance structure for the BBC, with the Committee saying in February 2015 that it saw no long-term future in the BBC licence fee and set out advantages of a broadcasting levy. It considered the BBC still a valued and important feature of national life but in need of stronger governance and more challenging, independent oversight if it was to be held accountable.

At the time, Whittingdale said when an organisation is in receipt of nearly £4 billion of public money, very big questions have to be asked about how that money is provided and spent, and how that organisation is governed and made accountable. “In the short term, there appears to be no realistic alternative to the licence fee, but that model is becoming harder and harder to justify and sustain,” he stated.

Whittingdale also said that the BBC Trust had failed to meet expectations and should be abolished. “It remains far too close to the BBC and blurs accountability of the BBC rather than it being a sharp and effective overseer of the BBC’s performance as a public service institution. “An organisation of the size and cost of the BBC must be subject to the most rigorous independent scrutiny. A single BBC Board would be fully and transparently accountable for its governance and spending. We recommend the establishment of a new Public Service Broadcasting Commission with wide powers to scrutinise the BBC’s strategic plan, assessing the BBC’s overall performance, and determining the level of public funding allocated to the BBC and to others.”

In conclusion, Whittingdale said that given the importance of the BBC, its position in the nation’s psyche and the size of its public funding, it was vital that a full and frank debate takes place now on all aspects of the broadcaster. So that this might happen, we are calling on Government to seek cross-party support for setting up an independent review panel now on the 2017 Charter, so that the process is as thorough, open and democratic as it can be. Our conclusions and recommendation set out the terms of reference for this panel.”

Whittingdale’s Committee’s formal conclusions followed comments he made in October 2014, when he declared the BBC licence fee to be “worse than the poll tax”  suggesting that he didn’t think there was any serious possibility of the licence fee going the next charter renewal. “I think in the longer term we are potentially looking at reducing at least a proportion of the licence fee that is compulsory and introducing an element of choice.”

Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries in the previous administration, may have hoped for promotion in the Department, but having been re-elected, he said he hoped to at least keep his current ministerial role. “I asked David Cameron for the job to be his Culture Minister and it is a job I really love doing. It touches a lot of people, through broadband expansion for example, which is important to a lot of my constituents. I hope I can continue doing it.”

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