Prime Minister David Cameron announced the nomination of John Whittingdale as the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. But is it a good or a bad thing for the BBC?
It is anticipated that this move will leave most people feeling upset, possibly in more than one way, depending on their general opinion of the BBC.
For the people who think the BBC is a beacon and that any changes will threaten its very fabric, the new Secretary of the state for Culture, Media and Sport is bad news. Indeed, Whittingdale said the renewal of BBC’s Charter is an opportunity to examine all aspects of the BBC, namely, its scale, scope, governance and funding. He thinks it will start a debate on the very role of the BBC in the UK. In his opinion, the renewal of BBC Charter is so important that an independent panel, conducting a long public consultation, should take place as soon as possible. He thinks any organisation that gets nearly £4 billion of public money should be subject to close scrutiny. He doesn’t support the idea that the BBC should continue to try to provide something for everyone. And when the market is clearly providing a lot of existing content, he thinks the BBC shouldn’t be afraid to do less. He would also like to remove the in-house production guarantee and to open up all BBC commissioning to competition. He also wants more partnership and collaboration with the private sector, and specifically, more support for local media. Finally, Whittingdale is also highly critical of the BBC Trust. He is not happy with the fact that the BBC is judging itself. He thinks the trust should be abolished and that complaints about accuracy and impartiality of the BBC should go to Ofcom, who already carry out that function for Channel 4.
For the people who resent the BBC, either because it’s a burden on the poor or a propaganda tool, the outlook is just as bleak. And for the people who don’t own a TV, Whittingdale is really bad news. Here’s why.
Of vulnerable people (people with low income, single parent families and people on benefit) Whittingdale makes no mention of, so maybe, in is mind, they don’t exist. He firmly thinks that if the TV licence fee is attached to council tax, it would somehow be less of a burden and that’s enough in itself. But without a single shred of evidence to support this wild claim, I fail to see how.
As for the bias the BBC is increasingly accused to hold, Whittingdale doesn’t see it. He thinks the BBC produces many outstanding, extremely popular, programmes and that it has an unrivalled reputation for accuracy and impartiality, which makes it hugely respected all over the world. On the other hand though, he does acknowledge that there have been significant failures in recent times: the episodes of executive pay-offs, pensions and severance payments; the loss of £100 million on the digital media initiative; the disastrous acquisition and then sale of Lonely Planet; and, of course, the editorial failures regarding programmes about Jimmy Savile and then Lord McAlpine. He deals with the paradox by saying that people judge the BBC on its content, not the mishaps that happen away from the public eye.
As for the people who don’t currently pay a TV licence, he thinks that either they watch TV in sneaky ways or they, at least, listen to BBC radio, so it’s fair to make them pay anyway. Indeed, Whittingdale believes arrangements should immediately be made to cover catch-up services. He does not challenge the broad claim that 96% of UK adults use the BBC each week (even though those results are based on samples of population as small as 500 people a week). He therefore thinks the number of people who never watch the BBC, never listen to BBC radio and never go online to access BBC services is “very, very small” and can simply be ignored. It is unclear if he know that 5.6 million UK address, out of 31 million, don’t have a TV licence at any given time. This means nearly 20% of the population are non-conformists in one shape or another.
But what does Whittingdale think of the current TV licence fee? He thinks it is simple, it maintains arm’s length independence from the Government, but it’s regressive, compulsory and expensive to collect. He has been heard saying the TV licence fee is “worse than a poll tax” and that it’s “collected through some fairly draconian measures” but, in his mind, there is no realistic alternative to some form of licence fee in the short term, although he supports a number of changes.
On decriminalisation, he’s torn. On one hand, he believes the penalties in place are anachronistic and disproportionate. He agrees that the 150,000 convictions every year for failure to have a licence clogs up the courts. But on the other hand, he clearly fears decriminalisation may create a risk of much greater evasion. It’s probably fair to assume that, without serious guaranties that the BBC funding will not suffer, he’s not likely to push very hard for decriminalisation of this “crime”.
“So what does he suggest?”, you may ask. When working on the 166 page long document “The future of the BBC” for the House of Commons, Whittingdale, as the chairman of the comity, had an opportunity to think long and hard about all the options. Here’s what he has to say on them.
On freedom of choice, Whittingdale thinks it is an important principle that, where possible, people should be able to choose whether to pay or not. He’s confident the vast majority of people would choose to go on paying. “I do not think there would be a massive drop.” he said.
On subscription, he thinks we should at least consider it, but because it would require big changes, such as the installation of conditional access in every household, it’s not yet possible to move to a subscription model. He’s doesn’t think subscription has to mean “paying more and getting less”.
On public funding, Whittingdale thinks there will always be an element of public finance because there are certain things that might not be viable on a subscription basis but are, nevertheless, important for the public good.
On a household levy, Whittingdale has said it’s “essentially the licence fee by a different name”. As every household would have to pay to same flat tax, regardless of viewing habits, he thinks it would be simpler to collect and much harder to avoid. Dreaming of riches, he thinks it may even lead to an increase in revenue if the current level of evasion has been underestimated. And if it was attached to a council tax, providing an incentive to councils to take on that responsibility, it could save even more money.
On free licence for people of over 75, he said “it is very difficult to justify why my mother doesn’t have to pay a licence fee.” He would like it if BBC was, at least, picking up the £500m cost of free TV licences.
If any part of this horrifies you, there is a petition, called “End the BBC Licence Fee” you can sign. The petition, hosted on 38 Degrees, has already signed by thousands. It asks Whittingdale, as the new Secretary of the state for Culture, Media and Sport, for a real open public debate on the future of the licence fee. The petition can be signed here: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/end-the-bbc-licence-fee