If you have been busy campaigning to save the BBC from its enemies, well done. If you wrote to your MP, signed a petition, or contributed to the government’s consultation exercise (which 192,564 of you did, apparently), you did not labour in vain.
Job done? Fraid not. Get out your magnifying glass, apply a cold compress to your forehead, and start ploughing through the small print. It’s not exactly fun, but someone has to do it.
Like most White Papers, this one starts off all soft and cuddly. The BBC, it says, is ‘a revered national institution, and familiar treasured companion. It is a cultural, economic and diplomatic force that touches the lives of almost all of those who live in the UK and hundreds of millions beyond these shores.’
Eighty per cent of the people who responded to the government’s consultation exercise said they think the BBC serves its audiences either well or very well. Seventy-four per cent of British voters believe it delivers ‘fresh and new’ programming. The government disagrees, and insists that it needs to keep bashing the BBC over the head to persuade it to ‘focus its creative energy on high quality distinctive content.’ Like Wolf Hall, presumably, or W1A, or Planet Earth, or Bake Off, or Dr Who, or The Night Manager, or … do I really need to go on?
The White Paper is a perfect example of a government trying to fix something that ain’t broke. How often does it need saying: the BBC is far from perfect, but it is one of the few British institutions of which we can be justifiably proud. (And no, I don’t say that just because I used to earn my living by working for it.)
So here’s the BBC’s new mission: ‘To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain.’ Achieving this, says the White Paper, ‘will require a change of culture within parts of the BBC’, which is nonsense. What on earth do ministers think it’s been trying to do all these years? Sometimes it fails, admittedly, but I defy anyone to prove that it’s not been trying.
John Whittingdale, who has never made any secret of the fact that he doesn’t really see why we need a BBC at all, has had to accept that, unlike him, the great British public have a deep affection for it. He has had to accept, through gritted teeth, that there is no alternative, at least for the next decade, to the licence fee, and, much as he would love to, he’s not going to be allowed to write the BBC’s schedules to give its commercial rivals a free run at peak-time viewing.
For all of which, I suspect, we owe the director-general, Tony Hall, a vote of thanks and a round of applause at a largely successful behind-the-scenes lobbying operation. When Tory MPs start voicing concern that their own government is being too hostile to the BBC, you know there has been some serious chatting going on in the places that matter.
I won’t mourn the death of the BBC Trust, which I described after the Savile debacle in 2012 as ‘an ugly, hybrid beast, neither regulator nor board of directors, [that] should be put out of its misery.’ But I urge you to look very carefully at the terms of reference being proposed for the new regulator, Ofcom.
It will ‘regulate editorial standards’ (p.14), and ‘investigate any aspect of BBC services, including where minor changes have over time combined to have notable impact, with proportionate powers to sanction’ (p.15). What that means is that if Ofcom suspects that the BBC’s programming is potentially eating into the profits of its competitors, it will have the power to step in.
As my former colleague Robert Peston, now political editor of ITV, put it: ‘There is a high probability that the BBC's activities will be much more severely circumscribed by an Ofcom highly sensitive to the impact of the BBC on the likes of ITV and Sky. In practice, the BBC's ability to make highly popular programmes, or invest in important new technologies, may be reined in.’
And when you finally get to page 54 of the White Paper, you find this: ‘The new regime should be moved towards a more clearly regulatory approach with a greater focus on measurable quantitative obligations that specify desired outputs and outcomes rather than the more qualitative approach of the existing service licences.’ In other words, measure the impact of BBC programming on its competitors, and take action accordingly. Never mind if the programmes are popular with the audience.
Even more ominously, ‘the new licensing regime will … require the licensing of the BBC to include content requirements that provide a set of measurable outputs to which the BBC can be held, the majority of which will be at service level. The BBC will be obliged to report against these content requirements, and the regulator will enforce against them, ultimately with the ability to sanction the BBC if required.’
And who will set out the content requirements? Surprise, surprise, it’s spelt out on page 55: ‘The government (my emphasis) will provide guidance to the regulator on content requirements and performance metrics to set clear policy parameters for the creation of this new regime.’
Disaster averted? Not quite. As they say when you buy something online, always read the terms and conditions. You may need to write to your MP again.