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Government begins debate on the future of BBC

July 16, 2015

The UK Government has issued a Consultation ‘Green Paper’ in which it has set out the topics for debate as part of the process to review the BBC’s Royal Charter to make sure it remains a valued public broadcaster. The BBC’s initial response was that that the Green Paper would appear to herald a much diminished, less popular BBC.

The BBC is governed by a Royal Charter, with the current Charter set to expire at the end of 2016. The Green Paper is the first stage of the process in setting a new Charter.

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale MP, said: “The BBC is at the very heart of Britain. It is one of this nation’s most treasured institutions – playing a role in almost all of our lives. Ten years ago, the last time the Government ran a Charter Review, the media landscape looked very different. The BBC has adapted to this changing landscape, and remains much-loved by audiences, a valuable engine of growth and an international benchmark for television, radio, online and journalism,” he stated.

“However we need to ask some hard questions during this Charter Review. Questions about what the BBC should be trying to achieve in an age where consumer choice is now far more extensive than it has been, what its scale and scope should be in the light of those aims, how far it affects others in television, radio and online, and what the right structures are for its governance and regulation,” he said.

The consultation sets out four broad issues for public discussion:

BBC’s mission, purpose and values

The BBC currently has six public purposes that were set out at the last Charter Review in 2006:

  • Sustaining citizenship and civil society

  • Promoting education and learning

  • Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence

  • Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities

  • Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK

  • Delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services.

All of the BBC’s activity should be working towards one or more of these. The consultation paper looks at whether these purposes are still relevant, and in the context of recent challenges the organisation has faced, if there should be more direction set about how the BBC works by defining its values in the next Charter.

Scale and scope of the BBC’s services and operations

Twenty years ago the BBC had two television channels and five national radio stations. It is now the largest public service broadcaster in the world, with nine television channels, ten national radio stations, and a major online presence. The consultation paper looks at whether this particular range of services best serves licence fee payers and the impact it has on the commercial sector given the current and future media environment.

The way in which the BBC is funded

The BBC is currently funded via the TV licence fee, which has proven to be a very resilient form of funding – bringing in £3.7 billion last year. However it is not without its challenges – for example it is regressive, set at a flat rate and is not adjusted for different household incomes. It is also true that more people – especially younger people – now access television exclusively online and without a licence. This is perfectly legal, as the existing legislation was drawn up when the iPlayer did not even exist. The Government has already committed to dealing with this problem and the Charter Review will allow us to look at how to modernise the current system.

BBC’s governance and accountability

The BBC Trust – established by the current Charter – exists to represent licence fee payers and hold the BBC to account. At times the BBC has fallen well short of the standards that the public expect of it, such as the Digital Media Initiative, the failed £100m technology project which exposed governance issues at the BBC. There are three broad alternative options – to reform the Trust model, create a unitary board and a new standalone oversight body or move external regulation wholesale to Ofcom. The Government is seeking views on these models and the wider issues of how the BBC’s transparency and accountability can be improved.

“The BBC is a national institution, paid for by the public. It will have spent more than £30 billion of public money over the current Charter period. Everyone must be able to have their say on how well they think that money is spent. This consultation gives them that opportunity. It also invites them to comment on how the BBC is governed,” added Whittingdale .

“This publication is an important first step in an open and thorough Charter Review. It sets out the issues and some of the options for change. I want it to stimulate a national debate over the coming months as we map out the future for our BBC. The public consultation marks the start of the Charter Review process. Over the coming months, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will be engaging with the public and industry to make sure that all views are given proper consideration,” he advised.

The BBC Trust will play a very important role in the Government’s plans to deliver a transparent, open and democratic Charter Review process.

In a Statement to Parliament Whittingdale said that while the BBC’s editorial independence must not be compromised, that did not mean that we are not entitled to ask whether the BBC could be more transparent and to scrutinise how the BBC relates to the public, Parliament and Government. “Any public body should be fully accountable to the public. People should be able to give voice to how well they think the BBC spends public money – some £30 billion over the current Charter period – and how well it meets its myriad other responsibilities,” he said.

In conclusion, he said the BBC was part of the fabric of this country, and a source of great pride. “We want it to thrive in the years to come. This consultation paper sets out the framework for what I hope will be a wide-ranging and informative national debate about the future of the BBC.”

The public and industry can access the consultation paper, including an online response form. The consultation will last for 12 weeks, from 16 July to 8 October 2015. The Government will then bring forward proposals based on this consultation in the Spring 2016.

Responding to the Green Paper, the BBC said: “The BBC is a creative and economic powerhouse for Britain. The starting point for any debate should be – how can a strong BBC benefit Britain even more at home and abroad? The BBC has embraced change in the past and will continue to do so in the future, and we will set out our own proposals in September.

We believe that this Green Paper would appear to herald a much diminished, less popular BBC. That would be bad for Britain and would not be the BBC that the public has known and loved for over 90 years.

It is important that we hear what the public want. It should be for the public to decide whether programmes like Strictly or Bake Off, or stations like Radio One or Two, should continue.

As the Director-General said on Tuesday, the BBC is not owned by its staff or by politicians, it is owned by the public. They are our shareholders. They pay the licence fee. Their voice should be heard the loudest.”

BBC Trust Chairman Rona Fairhead said the Green Paper recognised the “enormous” contribution that the BBC makes to the UK, and all the Trust’s analysis and audience feedback over the past eight years has underlined the value that it brings to people across the country.

“Of course there are also big questions to ask about the future of the BBC, but the debate must not be a narrow one and the clearest voice in it must that of the public. We will carry out our own research and consultation to make sure of that, and we welcome the Government’s statement that they will work with us and will take full account of our findings,” she added.

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