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Culture Secretary: ‘No prospect of BBC abolition’

Following his earlier announcement of an independent review of the BBC’s governance and regulation, UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has stressed that the Government Green Paper on the Corporation’s Charter Review should not be seen as an attempt to abolish the BBC.

Delivering a keynote speech at the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention 2015, Whittingdale said that given the huge change that has taken place in the last ten years, it was sensible to consider the BBC’s role in this changing environment – to look at its funding, its governance, its mission and purpose, its scale and scope.

He said he was “somewhat surprised” that the Green Paper was greeted as somehow heralding the demise of the BBC or as evidence of a Murdoch-inspired agenda to dismantle it, a charge he found particularly surprising since his last meeting with Rupert Murdoch took place over four years previously after he had served a warrant on him requiring his appearance in Parliament in relation to the phone-hacking inquiry.

“So there is precisely no prospect of the BBC being abolished,” he asserted. “I therefore found it rather odd of the BBC to ask people if they could live without it. My surprise was that nine of the 70 households said they would prefer to pay nothing and not receive the BBC! Had I been asked if I could live without the BBC I would certainly have said ‘No’.”

Furthermore, he said there was “no threat” to the BBC’s status as a world-class broadcaster, let alone an existential threat. “What we are exploring – as every Charter Review must explore – is how the BBC fits into the contemporary broadcasting landscape and how it might become even better.”

Whittingdale also noted that content portability was a key part of the European Commission’s proposals for Copyright reform and confirmed that the Government strongly supported the calls for much greater progress.

“Consumers understandably want to enjoy continued access to their favourite programmes when they travel abroad. And it is only right for someone who has paid for access to a subscription service – or even just the licence fee – to be able to access that content when on holiday overseas. However, we also need to ensure that we do not harm investment in UK content production and export growth – at which the UK excels. We must be careful not to create loopholes that could be exploited. My colleagues in the Business department and I are therefore looking to the industry to deliver portability, so that we can avoid the threat of overly zealous regulation in Brussels. So I urge broadcasters to make their content more widely available and to come forward with their own proposals for portability and how this can be made to work for your industry.”

He admitted that the issue of cross-border access for those based abroad was trickier, and was very conscious that this is a particular concern for the audio-visual sector. “We are pressing for more detail about the Commission’s proposals, which will need to be evidence-based and respect the rights of businesses to tailor products to their markets. I am also determined that we do everything we can to make sure that strong incentives for investment are not undermined. Striking the right balance is key – we need to make sure that investment remains attractive and creators are fairly paid. However, the current difficulty that those living abroad have in accessing UK channels and content is also a driver for piracy,” he noted.

“I was recently alarmed when talking to an ex-pat Brit living in Spain to hear how he was able to access every UK TV channel – free to air and subscription alike – as well as hundreds of movies and catch-up TV for around 25 euros a month. A quick search on the internet reveals a number of services making similar claims. These services take money away from the people who invest in content, such as many of you in this room. It is thanks to effective enforcement partnerships between industry, government and law enforcement agencies that these services are not operating in the UK. We need to continue to take action against copyright infringement both at home and abroad. But we also need to make sure that people like that ex-pat, who love our TV and want to pay to watch it, have the opportunity to do so legally.”

According to Whittingdale, this means making sure that changes to copyright law must be supported by a strong enforcement regime. “I am very pleased that the Commission is going to look at enforcement as part of its proposals and particularly at commercial-scale infringement. The UK is a world-leader on copyright enforcement and the Government has taken a number of steps to strengthen its position – including funding for the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit and helping rights-holders to have copyright infringing websites blocked by court order. We should build on our own experience of what works to help improve copyright enforcement in Europe and around the world. And of course the more that industry can do to innovate and find new and easier ways for consumers to access content legally, the less attractive piracy will become.”

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