and National Council CPBF
In July the Minister responsible for broadcasting, John Whittingdale, launched a consultation on the future of the BBC that ends on 8th October1. The BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall, spent the spring and summer making speeches laying out his vision for the Corporation. The issues at stake are the future direction of communications policy and the extent to which public service broadcasting, as represented in part by the BBC, will continue to play a significant role in the media landscape.
The political context is one in which there have been consistent, high profile complaints from the BBC’s rivals claiming that its popular programming and successful online services squeeze out commercial competitors. It is said to be too big, involved in too many activities and ought to be more ‘distinctive’; that is, it should ditch, or sell off, popular, commercially attractive, services like Radio 2 or its online services.
Elements in the government are clearly sympathetic to this, as is clear from the consultation document. The document contains questions which give credence to the issues raised by the Corporation’s rivals such as, ‘Is the BBC crowding out commercial competition and, if so, is this justified?’ or, ‘Where does the evidence suggest the BBC has a positive or negative wider impact on the market?’ This, within a context in which media corporations which support the government have a long track record of wanting to see the BBC scaled down.
The BBC’s response has been to concede ground. Hall has offered to open up all BBC production to private contractors. This is likely to lead to the BBC becoming mainly a commissioning organisation, thereby weakening its claim to the licence fee. His offer to build ‘partnerships’ with media conglomerates to use the licence fee to fund, journalists who would ‘share’ news with these organisations opens up the prospect of farming out chunks of the BBC’s news and current affairs provision to the private sector.
It is important that as many voices as possible are heard in this debate and that all those interested in communications policy intervene. This can be done by submitting evidence to the DCMS by 8th October. It can be done by contacting organisations like the Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom, the Media Reform Coalition, or the Voice of the Viewer and Listener, and supporting their interventions. Pressure needs to be put on the government to allow sufficient time for a full consultation on its actual proposals which will be published next spring.
This is a complex issue. But if the lobby attacking the BBC has its way, chunks of the licence fee may be allocated to commercial companies under contestable funding, key types of popular provision may be scaled back, and public service broadcasting further reduced to relatively small part of a massively expanded commercial sector.
There are many other issues which can and should be pursued about the ways in which the BBC is run and its relationship to the diversity of communities in the UK. Its interpretation of ‘impartiality’ has to be changed to include a far wider range of critical perspectives on major issues. Its governance should be made more democratic. Control over content and policy needs to be devolved to nations and regions. Structures designed to allow the public and employees a greater say in its running devised.
But we need a much wider rethink of communications policy. The CPBF, working with the Media Reform Coalition, have called for a raft of reforms. These include new controls on media ownership by giving real power to regulators to tackle media concentration and impose public service obligations on large media groups. It means, amongst other things, making the main commercial media regulator Ofcom a more representative and accountable body, charged with expanding public media.
These, and arguments like them, need to take centre stage in the debate, so as to challenge the current framework within which public discussions about the BBC and public service broadcasting take place.
1 DCMS, The BBC Charter Review. Public Consultation (London, DCMS, 2015) available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/bbc-charter-review-public-consultation