Embattled BBC director-general Tony Hall today called for the BBC’s independence to be safe-guarded ahead of the publication of findings from the government’s charter review of the public broadcaster. Speaking to the Cardiff Business Club, Hall made the case that it was the BBC’s independence through the decades that had been at the heart of its success. He also called for a new – stronger- regulatory body to replace the current BBC Trust.
“It is independence that should allow us that creative freedom. Aware of the market, but not led by it. Answerable to parliament, but free from political influence,” said Hall, who has been under political pressure for some time now over numerous critical issues, most importantly the future of the license fee that funds the BBC.
Hall has now become the first BBC director-general to call for an entirely independent regulatory body to oversee the BBC to protect it from the gradual political interference he said has undermined the broadcaster in recent years. His comments will be seen as further support for the idea of Ofcom to take over the role currently maintained by the BBC Trust.
“The foundations of the BBC’s independence became weaker. The traditions and informal arrangements which protected it had been eroded. Politicians had not done this deliberately – it happened under all parties,” commented Hall. Rather than maintain the current five year cycle for license fee reviews, Hall argued, this should go back to a longer gap than the full Parliamentary term to ensure stability and freedom from political interference.
“First, the licence fee was spent on things that were not directly to do with broadcasting. On digital switchover. On rural broadband and local TV. Then twice it was settled without a full process,” said Hall. ““The truth is that a five-year charter would effectively dangle a Sword of Damocles over the BBC’s head – calling our future into question at every election and stopping the corporation from planning or investing in any long-term, sustainable way.”
The BBC is facing its biggest changes in a generation as the Conservative government has undergone a strategic review to look at four critical aspects of the corporations’s future. Its mission statement and purpose; its scale and scope; its funding and its governance. 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, John Whittingdale, the Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, has conceded there is “no easy solution.”
It’s been a rough time recently for the BBC. The corporation had to announce cuts of more than 1000 jobs in the summer 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 have 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.”