TODAY we will find out what the Government wants to do with the BBC. The White Paper on charter renewal will be unveiled by Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.
This crucial marker has already provoked outrage, suspicion, rumour and counter-rumour. At the BAFTA TV awards last weekend, Peter Kosminsky, the director of the BBC’s acclaimed drama Wolf Hall, said the Government’s proposed reforms were “scary stuff”. In a speech more reminiscent of a battlefield than a back-slapping jamboree, he urged his fellow directors, writers, actors and producers to “stand up and fight” for a service which is the “envy of the world”.
In doing so, he provided an instant snapshot of the dichotomy which characterises the debate over our national television and radio service. For too long now, there has been confusion of what the BBC itself should stand for.
Is it the nation’s favourite broadcaster, the “Auntie Beeb” of popular folklore, a comfortable provider of entertainment, authoritative news and excellent drama – like Wolf Hall itself, an adaptation of novelist Hilary Mantel’s dark tale?
Or a leech on the taxpayer, squandering the licence fee paid by ordinary members of the public on inflated salaries for its presenters and entertainers, and pumping money into dubious “outreach” ideas which reinforce the presumed self-importance of the oldest broadcasting service in the world?
Or worse, a politically-biased news service at the constant mercy of conflicting political tides? The recent campaign to sack the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg over her coverage of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn highlights this to a fault.
I believe the key question is this: If it is a public broadcasting service, what do members of the public really want?
Given the deep-seated suspicion and animosity between the Government and the BBC, can we really trust ministers to make crucial decisions about how what it will deliver in the future? As Kosminksy pointed out, it is not “their BBC” – it is ours. As individuals, as licence payers, we cannot stand back and let it be broken up without voicing an opinion.
Personally, I’d like the BBC to do the following – continue to create excellent drama, produce entertainment suitable for all the family, carry on its fine reputation for nature and natural history programmes, offer unbiased news at a national, regional and local level through both television and radio, and to reinforce its provision of world-class training facilities for the next generation of media talent.
So much of this debate has focused on what London wants – all the decisions are being made there from Westminster to the BBC Headquarters itself. Let’s not forget though that the BBC benefits from a structure which gives the regions a voice. In places such as Yorkshire, affected by important ongoing issues such as political devolution, high-speed rail and the economy, it is vital that the public is kept abreast and informed, again both through television and radio.
Start to unpick this and the democratic process itself begins to unravel. If you want proof, just listen to a phone-in programme on a local radio station such as BBC Radio Sheffield (where I am a regular guest). In general, the people who phone in about issues of the day are as far removed from the metropolitan elite reviled by Mr Whittingdale and his supporters as it is possible to be. However, these programmes effectively give anyone who wants it a voice.
That said, it is easy to become swayed by what we see and hear – or what we might not see or hear in the future. It’s important too to give serious thought to what happens behind the scenes.
It is understood that the White Paper will recommend that the independent BBC Trust which governs the corporation, would be abolished. In its place would be a new BBC board with a chairman and deputy chairman appointed directly by the Government, who would appoint the majority of other members. Don’t under-estimate this proposal. It would effectively remove the editorial independence of the BBC and send the organisation towards becoming a state broadcaster. I daresay no one wants that; even the most hard-line reformist must accept that there is a role in British democracy for an independent multi-media news organisation.
It is true. The BBC does need to look to its programming, to consider quality and to take on board the challenge offered by the rapid evolution in the way in which the British public are sourcing news and entertainment.
The challenge posed by Sky for some years now, and more recent innovations such as Amazon TV, Netflix and online news services, including Facebook, should be neither ignored nor under-estimated.
Can we trust the Government to take all this on board and do the right thing, not for the interests of Ministers, but for those of the BBC and the public?
In the end, what happens today may tell us more about those who rule us than the organisation that they purport to reform.