Most BBC supporters feared the general election result would be bad news for the broadcaster. But even the most seasoned pessimists (and there are plenty of us) did not foresee the speed or scale of a comprehensive assault which had no mandate and no democratic legitimacy.
Close on the heels of longtime BBC sceptic John Whittingdale’s appointment as culture secretary came George Osborne’s raid on BBC funding (described by former director-general John Birt in the House of Lords as “opportunistic, expedient and unprincipled”), followed swiftly by appointment of an “independent advisory group” stuffed to the gills with commercial rivals.
This was all capped by a green paper whose miserable, visionless, pedestrian and market-driven rhetoric was every bit as bad as the pessimists had feared.
Government vision: a smaller BBC…
When Whittingdale’s select committee report was published, I wrote for this site that: “the ultimate aim of this report appears to be a smaller, poorer, less publicly attuned BBC filling in the market gaps, rather than a thriving and dynamic institution which serves its audiences and operates in the public interest.” His green paper is written in precisely the same philosophical spirit.
It is worth extracting a couple of quotes to illustrate quite how one-directional and one-dimensional this document is, at one point the question is raised as to whether “the BBC [should] continue to deliver everything that it currently does, or traditionally has done, or whether audience needs are better served by a more narrowly-focused BBC”.
Perhaps, it suggests: “the BBC might become more focused on a narrower, core set of services … A smaller BBC could see the public pay less for their TV licence and would also be likely to have a reduced market impact.”
This impact on the market is a recurring theme: “concerns have been raised that the BBC behaves in an overly commercial way, encroaching on TV genres and formats that could be served well by its commercial competitor”.
The notion of a smaller BBC runs through the green paper like letters through a stick of Blackpool rock. It is hard to see this emphasis on reduction as anything other than a sop to the BBC’s increasingly vocal competitors who fear both subscription (which would potentially compromise the revenues of Sky, Virgin and BT) and advertising (equally opposed by ITV, Channel Five and other ad-funded channels).
… and how to achieve it
There are a number of ways in which this desiccated vision might be achieved (not least of which is the starvation of funds which has already started) but two in particular are floated by the green paper.
First there is “contestable funding” or top-slicing of the licence fee for distribution to other broadcasters. A whole page is devoted to it, with the argument that “a small amount of contestable funding could introduce greater diversity of providers and greater plurality in public services provision”.
Of course, once the principle is established that licence fee revenues no longer “belong” to the BBC, the floodgates will open and the proportion diverted elsewhere will inexorably increase.
Second is a proposed strategy for imposing more stringent controls on the BBC’s freedom to manoeuvre. Under the terms of the current charter, each BBC service operates within a clearly defined set of guidelines established through service licences. Any new service or “significant change” to an existing service is subjected, quite properly, to a public value test (PVT – which includes an assessment of market impact), which was implemented as an entirely proportionate response to competitor concerns.
The green paper asks whether the PVT operation might miss some changes because they don’t meet the “threshold of significance” - in other words, should the test be triggered at a lower level of editorial decision-making? It also questions whether service licences “may not hold the BBC to a high enough standard or contain enough specific details about output”. The further restrictions which are implicit in these questions would strike at the heart of the BBC’s editorial discretion and its ability to provide a wide-ranging service of size and scale reaching out to the whole nation.
By indulging the BBC’s competitors so comprehensively, there is a real risk of constraining the BBC to the point where it would barely be able to function.
Retaining the BBC Trust
At the heart of any changes to how the BBC functions is its system of governance. It has become a conventional wisdom that the BBC Trust is not fit for purpose, a conclusion which is premature for an organisation which is less than ten years old.
Ironically, one of the best defences of the trust model comes from a passage in the green paper which rehearses the advantages of strengthening the existing system rather than replacing it: that all organisational change “takes time, costs money and introduces disruption, risk and uncertainty”.
Unsurprisingly, the paper proposes two alternatives, both with major disadvantages for a healthy BBC: first, a new standalone regulator that would “not risk being distracted by wider responsibilities” (which means, essentially, defending the BBC’s independence). It would be a natural consequence to allow this new regulator to distribute BBC funding elsewhere. And second, to hand regulation to Ofcom – which would then be overseeing both private and public sectors, conferring enormous monopolistic power over a single regulatory body.
There is no mention of perhaps the most persuasive argument of all for retaining the trust, which relates to its original provenance and rationale: that it should be, in the words of the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, who established it in 2006: “the eyes and ears of the licence payer”, representing their interests in guaranteeing the BBC’s independence, efficiency, quality and integrity.
In its response to the green paper, the trust firmly established the case for universality as well as a legitimate entertainment role for the BBC, based on its own research among licence payers – thus demonstrating that it was willing and able to stand up for a strong and independent BBC. No wonder it is consistently pilloried by a press which has much to gain from a smaller BBC.
Those who seek a perfect solution for BBC governance will be forever disappointed; there is no counsel of perfection for an institution which is by definition intimately intertwined with both market and state. With a clearer demarcation of responsibilities between the Trust and executive, given time and support, it could develop into a perfectly adequate mechanism of governance which would preserve both regulatory plurality (keeping Ofcom at a distance from the BBC) and avoid the perils of yet more structural inventions and organisational instability.
My fear is that the mantra of “abolish the trust” is becoming a convenient pretext for a new governance structure which will willingly engineer the significantly smaller BBC that the culture secretary appears intent on achieving.
This article is based on a chapter which will appear in The BBC Today: Future Uncertain_ (eds John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble), to be published by Abramis in September. _
Steven Barnett does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: The Conversation