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Shadow Culture Secretary Maria Eagle has accused John Whittingdale of “bullying” the BBC as she launched a wide-ranging attack on the UK Culture Secretary. She also urged the government to “see sense” in respect of plans to privatise Channel 4.
Eagle repeatedly accused Whittingdale of acting like a bully over a series of issues including the Corporation’s coverage of the EU referendum, the renewal of its Charter, the funding of free television licences and the content of programmes.
Speaking at the Voice of the Viewer and Listener Conference on the future of the BBC and public service broadcasting, Eagle mounted a strong defence of the BBC and described herself as a “critical friend” of the broadcaster when she appeared at the today. She reserved her strongest criticism for Whittingdale over his attitude towards the BBC.
“He has bullied the Corporation over its editorial line on Europe, and continued his habit of dictating to the BBC what content it should and should not be commissioning. Following his call last year for the BBC to stop making programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, he has now recommended axing The Voice, all the while claiming that BBC One has been ‘dumbing down’,” she said.
“In last year’s agreement between the Government and the BBC, the Chancellor bullied the BBC into agreeing to pay for free TV licences for Over 75s in exchange for a promise – which has yet to be fulfilled – that there might be a CPI [inflation] increase in the licence fee from 2017,” she maintained.
She suggested that the reports from the weekend that the Corporation could be forced to sell its stake in other television channels should be seen as nothing but another ministerial attempt to bully the Corporation whilst the negotiations around the next Charter were still ongoing.
“Let’s be clear, it is just not on for the Government to undermine the commercial activity the BBC undertakes to keep the TV licence cost down,” she stated. “A forced sale of this stake would be a huge blow to the Corporation, given that it provides about a third of BBC Worldwide’s profits. What possible good can it do to strip the BBC of its commercial profits?”
She noted that BBC Worldwide returned £113 million to 250 companies in the independent production sector last year and invested over £180m in content – directly assisting the UK’s creative industries, and that BBC Worldwide’s commercial activities gave almost £230 million annually back to the licence fee-funded BBC, “showing just how wrong-headed these Tory threats are”, she declared.
On Channel 4 privatisation, she called on the Government to see sense. “There is nothing to be gained from pursuing this and quite a lot to be lost. The Channel 4 model of public service broadcasting obligations financed by advertising has brought an innovative and unique approach to our broadcasting landscape,” she suggested.
According to Eagle, Channel 4 is in a position to take risks that no other broadcaster can. “It commissions all its own productions from the UK independent sector, with all its profit is ploughed back in to meeting its public service obligations and commissioning its programmes. There are no shareholders to pay. It helps boost UK creative industries whilst fulfilling its statutory public service broadcasting obligations to us all. If it was privatised some of the money which now goes to commission programmes would be diverted to pay shareholders. As a result, it could simply become a platform for showing content produced elsewhere, probably outside of the UK. This would make the UK’s broadcasting landscape immeasurably poorer for its sale,” she warned.
In conclusion, she said it was clear that the future of public service broadcasting was at critical moment. “I for one hope – as you do – that public service broadcasting in the UK carries on going from strength to strength, and that it is allowed to continue contributing to our national life in the way it has done in this country for decades.”