John Whittingdale is a committed free marketeer who has never liked the size or scale of the BBC. This was his opportunity to make serious inroads into the populist element of the BBC and satisfy the “crowding out” grievances of rival broadcasters and publishers.On the face of it, he has failed. The BBC’s popular shows, like Strictly and Bake-Off, now trip easily off commentators’ tongues as legitimately “distinctive” and the more outlandish ideas such as “banning” competitive scheduling never even made it to the starting grid. There is now a widespread view that, with the licence fee intact and an eleven-year Charter, the BBC has somehow emerged unscathed.
This is dangerously complacent, and a reminder of quite how successful the culture department and national press has been in preparing us for a full-frontal assault. In fact, a closer inspection of the White Paper small print suggests that there will almost certainly be some serious constraints on the BBC’s creative freedom to launch or sustain popular programming.
Whittingdale said in his statement to the House of Commons that Ofcom will be required to “establish a new operating licence regime for the BBC, backed with clear sanctions”. So Ofcom will be asked to rethink (and simplify) the current system of service licences, and to set objectives for the BBC derived from the new purposes – especially “distinctiveness”. To avoid any ambiguity, this is explicitly defined as “a requirement that the BBC should be substantially different to other providers across each and every service, both in prime time and overall, and on television, radio and online”.
In case Ofcom fails to fully appreciate the government’s objectives, page 55 of the White Paper helpfully assures us that “the government will provide guidance to the regulator on content requirements and performance metrics to set clear policy parameters for the creation of this new regime”. Which raises an interesting question: will we get to see this “guidance” before the Charter is finalised?
Not only will Ofcom be tasked with quantifying BBC performance against government-led objectives, it will also have powers to “investigate any aspect of BBC services’ impact on commercial services”. This is a profoundly important shift from the current regime which requires intervention only for a proposed new service or a “significant change” to an existing service.
It will certainly prompt a string of complaints from, for example, Global Radio about aspects of BBC Radio 1, ITV about some BBC1 programmes, Telegraph Newspapers about BBC online, Trinity Mirror about local radio, and so on. It is a recipe not just for regulatory chaos and logjam, but for tying up the BBC in endless defensive debates about new programmes and the definition of distinctiveness – all in the shadow of screechingly hostile headlines from the tabloid press and its hangers-on about “leftie luvvies”.
Please read the original article – it has another section on BBC independence that needs to be seen as well.
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