New Culture Secretary is critical of BBC “but not going to war”

John Whittingdale.  Photo: Dominic Lipinski /PA WireJohn Whittingdale.  Photo: Dominic Lipinski /PA Wire
John Whittingdale. Photo: Dominic Lipinski /PA Wire
THE BBC TRUST could be stripped of the power to rule on claims of political bias against the corporation in favour of an independent regulator, the new Culture Secretary has said.

John Whittingdale said he wanted to look at the trust’s role in policing the media giant over the hotly-contested issue, as all other broadcasters are subject to external oversight.

It follows a general election campaign in which the BBC was the focus of complaints over its coverage from all sides of the political spectrum.

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On Thursday BBC director general Lord Hall warned the Government not to “screw around with” the BBC ahead of the renewal of the corporation’s charter and possible changes to the licence fee.

Maldon MP Mr Whittingdale, a former chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee who was promoted to the Cabinet after the Tory win in May, told the Telegraph that parties were always looking for signs of bias from broadcasters.

“I think sometimes my party had cause for complaint. I suspect that it may well be the case that sometimes the Labour Party had cause for complaint,” he said.

“There needs to be a very robust system in place for dealing with it. Whether or not the present governance is the right way of dealing with it - the fact that questions of impartiality are judged by the BBC Trust - that is an area which I want to think about because all the other broadcasters have an external regulator looking at the impartiality question.

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“It’s part of the bigger question of the way in which the BBC is governed.”

In an interview with TV industry magazine Broadcast, Lord Hall said the BBC was “one of the engine rooms” of the creative industries in this country - and warned that diminishing it “would damage them all”.

He said: “One of my pleas would be: this ecology works. Don’t screw around with it.”

David Cameron’s appointment of veteran Mr Whittingdale to Culture Secretary after the last election led to warnings in some newspapers that the Government is set to “go to war with the BBC”.

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However, in his interview with the Telegraph, the minister denied that, saying: “It never was the case that I was going in to go to war with the BBC.

“I am critical of the BBC. I also think there are areas where clearly there is a strong case for change not least because the landscape is looking so different.

“But it isn’t a sort of vendetta or a punishment exercise or anything like that.”

The BBC Trust said in a statement: “We welcome the Secretary of State’s recognition of the important role of the BBC and his confirmation that a proper debate will take place for the next Charter, and we look forward to contributing.

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“We fully expect that regulation of editorial coverage will be one of the areas of review, an important principle being that the body that oversees the BBC’s impartiality needs to remain independent of Government and the political parties.”