If you believe the white paper on the BBC to be good news, you should read it more closely, says an academic who has.
Given the political turmoil of the past few months, it is tempting to see the future of the BBC as a sideshow while the full economic consequences of the Brexit vote unfold. It is therefore worth reminding ourselves that the new BBC charter – due to start on January 1, 2017 but still in the process of being resolved – will see the BBC through a centenary that many assumed it would never achieve. Having survived the depression, a world war, the rise and fall of several political parties, our accession to the EU and innumerable political crises over the past 90 years, this great British icon will at least endure a little longer. The question is, in what form?
Before the post-referendum game of cabinet musical chairs, David Cameron’s government published a white paper on the future of the BBC, which bore the clear imprint of his culture secretary John Whittingdale, a committed free marketeer who has never liked the size or scale of the BBC. In the run-up to its publication, there were carefully orchestrated leaks that suggested a brutal approach to the new charter. Could Strictly Come Dancing be justified as properly distinctive? Wasn’t the licence fee doomed? Perhaps the scale of technological change demanded only a five-year charter? Should the BBC be forced to move its 10 o’clock news to avoid clashing with ITV? Perhaps there should be a much broader instruction not to schedule competitively against commercial channels in peak time. And so on.
So when the white paper emerged in May 2016, there were sighs of relief. The licence fee was safe. The charter would be extended to 11 years to take it out of the electoral cycle. Such outlandish ideas as banning competitive scheduling had been quietly ditched (or, if you believe the spin, were never seriously considered). There was a widespread view that the BBC had emerged unscathed from the warmongering rhetoric that had accompanied Whittingdale’s appointment.
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