Andrew Allison: The right man to make the BBC face up to reality

THE surprise announcement in this week’s reshuffle was the appointment of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary. He is a long-standing member of The Freedom Association’s Council, and of course we congratulate him on his appointment.

And for the record, just because he is one of our Council members, doesn’t mean that he will go out of his way to do us any favours. As Chairman of the Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, he was scrupulously fair and balanced, and I am sure he will continue in the same vein.

Fair and balanced isn’t a phrase you would use to describe the BBC’s coverage of the General Election though. Far from it. On its election website, the BBC showed a clear bias towards the Labour Party in the way it presented stories, and if you had the misfortune to watch the BBC’s election night coverage, you know how inferior it was.

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It was so slow at getting the results in, I know from conversations with friends that I was not alone in switching over to Sky News whose coverage was slicker, and most importantly, faster at communicating the night’s events.

When the Culture, Media and Sport Committee published its report on the future of the BBC, I was hardly complimentary about it. I wrote at the time: “We know the management at the BBC is averse to change, and now we know that the current members of the CMS Committee (or at least a majority of them) are, too.”

That was two and a half months ago and I haven’t changed my mind. There isn’t an appetite for replacing the current licence fee with a new broadcasting levy on all households, irrespective of whether or not they watch television.

Replacing one compulsory funding system with another, is regressive, so although I know that John Whittingdale won’t do me or The Freedom Association’s “Axe the TV Tax” campaign any special favours (and nor should he), here is what I would like him to do as Secretary of State.

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One thing all MPs on the Culture, Media, and Sport Committee were agreed on was that the BBC Trust is not fit for purpose and should be replaced. I agree, and I fully expect that proposal to be swiftly implemented.

During our debate on the future of the BBC at last year’s Freedom Zone at the Conservative Party Conference, John Whittingdale commented on how much had changed since the last charter was renewed.

BBC iPlayer and other catch-up services were not around. Netflix and Amazon Prime had not been launched. Facebook was just arriving in the UK, and Twitter wasn’t launched in the United States until March 2006. YouTube was launched in February 2005 – just 10 years ago. Technology is moving so rapidly, we cannot predict how we will be accessing media content in the future. To set in stone the BBC’s objectives, responsibilities, and model of funding for ten years is too long a period of time. The next Royal Charter should be renewed for five years.

During those five years, the BBC should be instructed to prepare for the abolition of the licence fee and to move to a subscription service. The technology is not available yet, but will be in a few years.

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To be fair to the BBC, you couldn’t cease one method of funding one day and then change it to something different the next. There would have to be a rollout across the country on an agreed timescale.

What constitutes public service broadcasting needs to be decided and a method of funding will have to be agreed. We have advocated that genuine public service broadcasting should be paid for out of general taxation.

Personally, I think there is very little on BBC television that falls under that category. This is what the BBC1 schedule looked like one morning this week: The Housing Enforcers; Homes Under the Hammer; Don’t Get Done, Get Dom; Oxford Street Revealed; and Bargain Hunt.

Those programmes may be popular, but would hardly pass a public service test. They are essentially entertainment shows similar to those on other commercial channels.

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As far as BBC radio is concerned, the only channel that passes a public service test is Radio 4. All of the others, including some of Radio 3, offer something that is catered for by the private sector.

I am sure that John Whittingdale has been appointed to do a specific job. He is certainly up to the task, as he knows his brief inside out, which makes a refreshing change.

As long as the commitment is made to privatise the BBC and the timetable is agreed, I will be happy – as will the many millions of people who agree with us that the licence fee should go.

Andrew Allison, from Hull, is head of campaigns at The Freedom Association.