The BBC is to face its biggest changes in a generation as the Conservative government today announced a strategic review that will look at four critical aspects of the corporations’s future. Its mission statement and purpose; its scale and scope; its funding and its governance will all be held under close scrutiny as John Whittingdale, the Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, unveiled the government’s green paper on Thursday. At the heart of the review will be the existential question of what the BBC should represent moving forward.
“One key task is to assess whether the idea of universality still holds water. With so much more choice, we must at least question whether the BBC should try to be all things to all people,” said Whittingdale.
The review marks the beginning of a process that should end, subject to agreement being reached, with the creation of a new royal charter defining the BBCs role. The current charter expires at the end of 2016. In what has become an increasingly politicised debate, with many on the right seeking to end or at least dramatically cut back the current license fee model, Whittingdale conceded a solution had still not been found and that there “was no easy solution.” Some options include reformed licence fee, a household levy and a subscription model. While a subscription model, particularly for use of the BBC’s popular and currently free iPlayer, was an attractive long term possibility, “it cannot work in the short term because the technology is not yet in every home to control access,” said Whittingdale.
Days after Chancellor George Osborne singled out the BBC’s website as an area that cuts could be applied to, Whittingdale singled out “The Voice” as one show that did not need to to be on the BBC, particularly in contrast to local hit Strictly Come Dancing. “For example, the BBC acquired the format for The Voice. This was a singing talent show developed overseas, bought by the BBC at a reported cost of around £20 million and similar to ITV’s X Factor.” said Whittingdale. “This is in contrast to Strictly Come Dancing which was developed by the BBC in-house and then sold abroad.”
The BBC did score one win, at least, with the news that there would be no decriminalisation, for now at least, of license fee evasion. The British government last year commissioned a review of how the license fee is enforced and whether its avoidance should be decriminalized. Everyone with a TV in Britain is obliged to pay the annual fee, but some do not. The act of non-payment is considered a crime under the Communications Act and is punishable by a fine of up to £1000. There’s been a lot of chatter over time about the system being anachronistic and out of proportion, but the independent study released today found that the punishment should be maintained.
In response, the BBC said, “The BBC welcomes the conclusions of the Perry Review that license fee evasion should not be decriminalized and that the current system is broadly fair, proportionate and provides good value for both licence fee payers and taxpayers.”
Elsewhere, however, Whittingdale had some harsh words. Noting instances where the BBC “had fallen well short of the standards expected of it”, such as the Jimmy Saville sex abuse scandal and the Digital Media Initiative fiasco, he went on to question the sprawling side of the organisation. “Twenty years ago the BBC had two television channels and five national radio stations,” Whittingdale said. “It is now the largest public service broadcaster in the world, with nine television channels, 10 national radio stations, and a major online presence. The consultation paper looks at whether this particular range of services best serves license fee payers and the impact it has on the commercial sector given the current and future media environment.”
BBC execs were quick to criticise the Green Paper, releasing a statement that strongly defended the public broadcaster’s role and function. “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,” read the statement.
That chimes in with BBC Director-General Tony Hall’s bullish statement on Tuesday, that,” “The BBC does not belong to its staff. The BBC does not belong to t.he Government. The BBC belongs to the country. The public are our shareholders. They pay for us. So it is their voice that will matter most in this debate,”
It’s been a rough time recently for the BBC. The corporation has had to announce cuts of more than 1000 jobs as part of a restructuring caused by a $234 million gap in license-fee income for 2016-2017 as well as face a bill in excess of $1 billion for new welfare charges. The public broadcaster is being asked to absorb the cost of the license fee for viewers over age 75 as the government attempts to shift the cost, currently covered by the Department for Work and Pensions, off its books.
The pubcaster has been under pressure to find alternative ways to fund its operations. Earlier this year, a report from the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee said the TV license is “becoming harder and harder to justify.”
A host of big names lent their voices to an open letter to the government on Wednesday calling for it to protect the integrity and independence of the BBC, Daniel Craig, J.K. Rowling, Dame Judi Dench Stephen Fry and Richard Curtis were just some of the luminaries to offer the embattled BBC some support.
“In our view, a diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain,” read their statement.”The BBC is a very precious institution. Like all organisations, it has its faults but it is overwhelmingly a creative force for good. Britain’s creative economy is growing and enjoying unprecedented success. The BBC is at the heart of this as the global showcase for our creative industries.”