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Crossroads for the BBC

The new Culture Secretary has been painted as a man on a mission to attack the BBC. This article by Charlotte Higgins in Prospect paints a more subtle picture of both his ambitions and the political realities that will constrain what he is able to do......

The entrance to BBC broadcasting house in London. © Sarah Marshall

The entrance to BBC broadcasting house in London. © Sarah Marshall

On 11th May, when John Whittingdale was chosen as the new Conservative government’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Telegraphand the Mail were triumphant, the former declaring on its front page that, with his appointment, the “Tories declare war on the BBC.”

Whittingdale is unique among holders of that post in that his views on his portfolio are both well worked out and well known. Unlike many who come to the position—such as Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid—he is not a bird of passage, aiming for bigger and bolder ministries than this, which is seen as second rate in Whitehall, having been starved of both cash and talent since 2010.

Whittingdale, by contrast, who held a couple of shadow posts in the early 2000s, and served for a decade as Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, has been given his dream job. He told the Telegraph that when the call came from Number 10, he assumed he would be offered some junior ministerial post in a field of little interest to him, not a Cabinet position dealing with his pet subjects. No further ambitions remain. He will want to get things right.

What will getting things right mean for Whittingdale? A former Political Secretary to Margaret Thatcher, he describes himself as being a free-market Conservative. For him, the BBC is too large, too much of a state intervention into the market. The Whittingdalian view of the BBC is that it ought to provide public service broadcasting in order to correct market failure—but in an era of media plurality, what does that mean?

In February 2014, when I met him as part of my research for a book on the BBC, he told me that it “doesn’t just mean narrow programmes about Guatemalan hill tribes’ eating habits; it actually does extend into high-quality drama, risky material, arts and culture, news and current affairs at the core, religion, education, children.”

But, he continued: “There are some areas where I think the BBC is way outside the definition of what I call public service broadcasting… Is there a public service argument for Strictly [Come Dancing]? Debatable. Is there a public service argument for putting out Strictly at roughly the same time as ITV is running X Factor? No. The one thing in my view the BBC should not be thinking about is ratings, but they do because of the licence fee. That’s the problem.”

In other words, as far as Whittingdale was concerned, the licence fee was part of the problem. Because it is charged as, effectively, a universal taxation, enforced by criminal sanctions, it meant the BBC had to provide something for everyone, which in turn meant that it felt the need to be in areas that were best served by the commercial world.

I asked him what he would do, were he made Culture Secretary (at the time, a frankly absurd proposition). He said that he would end the licence fee and pay for the BBC from “straight exchequer funding”—for example, income tax. That would mean “it would obviously be subject to the same pressures as every other form of public spending.” (Even more significantly, it would be directly subject to the changing political favour, arguably compromising its independence.)

He concluded: “My private view has always been that you have a much smaller BBC doing a much more targeted output of clear public service content.” It was all immensely logical, and his views were delivered in clear and calm terms. He was not visibly afflicted with the foam-at-the-mouth loathing of the BBC displayed by some on the political right.

One’s degree of agreement with Whittingdale’s views, it seemed to me, would hinge on one’s views on markets and on one’s fundamental ideas about the nature of British society. Did it matter that, if Whittingdale’s ideas were enacted, the BBC would cease to be one of the binding threads of Britishness, a bond that held the populace together (40m of us, according to the BBC’s own figures, use it for at least 18 hours a week)?

Did it matter that the BBC, so carefully and subtly set up in the 1920s to stand at arm’s length from government, protected—largely—from open interference, could be placed directly within reach of the riptides of politics?

The government’s recent green paper, to which the BBC will respond in September, bears all the hallmarks of Whittingdale’s views—it was drawn up by Whittingdale’s own department. It suggests that the government has plenty of appetite to reshape radically—and reduce—the scope and scale of the BBC during the charter renewal process, which must be settled by the end of 2016. And it is the government that has all the power. Certainly not parliament. Not even the high-profile Select Committee, with its new Chair Jesse Norman, a more Burkean Conservative than his predecessor, can hope to do more than influence the tone of the argument from without.

There is, however, a potential brake on Whittingdale’s radicalism. Just before the budget of 8th July, for example, something happened that may set the pattern for the way things are conducted. The Chancellor, George Osborne, instructed Whittingdale to inform the BBC that it would have to take on the cost of the licence fee for over-75s which, since 2001, had been borne by the government. It was a bad moment for the BBC—a sudden assault that it was powerless to resist.

But in the ensuing confrontation, the BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall, bypassed Whittingdale and negotiated directly with the more powerful Osborne, wresting from him the assurance that the corporation would receive an index-linked rise in the licence fee as some compensation for the imposition of the over-75s’ costs. Despite the evidence of this hostile move, he may prove a future ally to the BBC: Osborne is less radically minded about it and has a broader sense of its purpose, believing, for example, that the BBC has a valid role in providing entertainment.

To close readers of the situation, these events showed that Whittingdale was in fact fairly low down the political pecking order, and hinted that the BBC’s future may rest not so much on the Culture Secretary’s personal ideology, as on the Chancellor’s attitude towards the BBC and political calculations. Such calculations will surely be made with an eye on the main prize—Number 10.

The question, then, is not so much whether Whittingdale will have the opportunity to enact his radical views, as whether Osborne will wish to lose touch, entirely, with the political centre ground. That is the sliver of hope to which the BBC will cling.

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