The BBC’s Royal Charter is up for renewal. On 12 May the government published a White Paper, A BBC for the Future: A Broadcaster of Distinction, setting out its proposals. A draft of the new charter will be published and debated in Parliament and the final version will come into effect at the beginning of next year.
There had been worries about John Whittingdale, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, and the plans he might have for the BBC, but the organisation envisioned in the White Paper isn’t vastly different from the BBC as we know it. The £3.7 billion from the licence fee will remain its main source of funding. The corporation won’t be forced to reschedule popular programmes to clear the way for private-sector competitors, as had been feared: the new board will be expected to ‘consider any potential undue negative impacts of its scheduling decisions’, but Strictly Come Dancing is safe from the dead hand of political interference.
As in the last charter review, significant changes in governance are proposed. The existing combination of executive board and non-executive trust is to be replaced by a unitary board. The government will appoint six non-executive directors to this board, including the chair and deputy chair. These six will in turn appoint the rest. The board will oversee the BBC’s strategy and delivery, in line with the requirements placed on it in the renewed charter, and it will take on some regulatory functions. The BBC will also be subject to external regulation by Ofcom. (This is something that almost no one said they wanted. Only 3.5 per cent of the 192,564 people who took part in a public consultation thought it was a good idea. But then only about 15 per cent of them expressed any view at all on the governance and regulation of the BBC. The structures of the BBC, like its ‘public purposes’, are there to be seen on its website, but that doesn’t make them any less mysterious to most of us.)
While the White Paper makes much of the clarity and simplicity of the new structure, it preserves some of the confusion of responsibilities between the trust and the executive board that has caused so much trouble for the BBC in the last ten years. The addition of Ofcom to the mix, given a remit to ‘hold the BBC to account for its assessment of both market impact and public value’, could open the way to spectacular bureaucratic infighting, paralysis or both. The new arrangements will probably work tolerably well until the BBC wants to do something that Ofcom thinks will distort the market. It’s unlikely in any case that any system of BBC governance could handle another scandal of the Savile type. An institution that is at once the dominant media institution in the country and a complete mystery to its audience is inherently unstable.
There is a lot of talk in the White Paper about the need for diversity and distinctiveness and the dangers of ‘negative market impacts’. Whittingdale doesn’t want the BBC to crowd out commercial competitors just because it can. You might almost think the government wanted the BBC to be high-minded, and unpopular, by limiting itself to areas where profits are scarce and the corporate media indifferent. But more than once we are assured that distinctive programming can also be popular: it’s just that the government would prefer commissioning editors to think about being innovative rather than about the ratings. Well, maybe. But ‘negative market impacts’ may be unavoidable. Technology is changing the way people access news and entertainment. If the BBC is to remain the main conduit from the UK state to the population it might have to move into areas currently dominated by Google and Facebook.
There is some red meat for those who remember Thatcher’s glory days. The government proposes to introduce ‘full competition’ for the money the BBC spends on television and online content. As a result, more public money will doubtless find its way onto the balance sheets of the large media groups. News and ‘news-related current affairs’ will remain exempt. Even Thatcherites understand what the BBC is ultimately for.
The White Paper makes barely any comment on news and current affairs. The new list of public purposes starts with ‘providing impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them’. But there is no attempt to engage with the BBC’s record in this regard; academic attempts to assess BBC news, most notably by Justin Lewis and his colleagues at Cardiff University, go unmentioned. The BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis, of national and international politics: none of this excites the authors’ curiosity or concern. And while competition is celebrated throughout as a guarantor of efficiency and transparency, the exemption of news is declared necessary ‘to ensure there is sufficient plurality in the supply of news’.
Yet the White Paper does take a lively interest in journalism elsewhere. Local and regional newspapers are struggling to cope with the rise of digital media, it says, and the solution is to subsidise their reporting of public institutions with licence payers’ money. A few hours after the White Paper was published, the BBC announced plans to work with the News Media Association (NMA) on a ‘groundbreaking new partnership’ to ‘support local journalism in the UK’. The BBC will fund 150 journalists who will be employed by ‘qualifying local news organisations’. These journalists will be ‘under the editorial direction and control of their employers’ but ‘processes will be jointly agreed to ensure the quality of coverage is in line with the BBC’s public service obligations.’ Nothing has yet been said about how local news organisations will qualify for the subsidy but, given that the NMA is the lobby for local newspaper publishers, presumably most of the beneficiaries will be large corporations like Archant, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror, which currently operate as monopolies in many regional and local media markets. Neither the BBC nor the White Paper gives any hint of how much this ‘groundbreaking partnership’ will cost. But local newspaper groups have grown used to very healthy margins, even as they lobby the government for subsidies.
Successive governments have been worried about the decline of local reporting since at least 2009, when Ofcom proposed the creation of ‘independently funded news consortia’ as a ‘long-term replacement for ITV regional news’. After three pilots, in which the newspaper groups were prominent, that idea was quietly dropped. Perhaps universities, independent media organisations and other elements in civil society will agitate for public subsidies to be given to bodies that are accountable to their audiences. That is not true of the corporations that currently dominate local markets. Their coverage of local government, never exactly inquisitorial, has become integral to the inscrutability and impunity that prevails in so much of the country, the English regions in particular.
In any event, the BBC’s managers have accepted that its money can be used to pay for journalists whom the BBC does not directly employ. This is a significant change. Even a few years ago its paid lobbyists and amateur admirers would shut down any discussion of the BBC’s monopoly control of the licence fee with dark warnings about the dangers of ‘top-slicing’. Giving public money to private monopolies is obviously indefensible, even if the BBC now seems keen to give it a go. It isn’t difficult to think of more sensible ways of ensuring ‘sufficient plurality’ in the reporting of local and even national politics. The BBC could award funds for defined purposes to consortia of independent media based in the areas they cover. BBC viewers and listeners could vote for these consortia and assess their performance. Or journalists and researchers could pitch directly to regional and national publics for funds. The BBC could publicise the proposals and manage the voting process.
All that will have to wait for Corbyn’s first term. Meanwhile, the BBC imagined in the White Paper is recognisably the BBC that John Birt created during his time as deputy director general and then director general between 1987 and 2000. It will continue to marry public service commitments with market-mimicking mechanisms. It will seek to appear neutral and independent while finding an accommodation with the needs of its masters in Parliament. It will try to insinuate itself into our intimate affections as Auntie Beeb, while remaining deeply mysterious. It will aim to ensure that audiences who are substantially misinformed about almost everything important will continue to trust it, as though enlightened administration from above and the bewilderment of the natives are not somehow connected.