John Whittingdale’s BBC white paper spells danger for the people’s broadcaster

Plans mean funding cuts and more privatisation


Culture Secretary John Whittingdale claims the government plans no changes to the scope or scale of the BBC, as he releases his white paper on the broadcaster’s future today.

The reality is that damage is being done to the BBC’s scope and scale with every passing day. Today, here and now, there are departments across the BBC whose projects are at a standstill because of uncertainty over future funding.

How can it be possible to expect the BBC’s operations to remain intact when it is set to lose 20 per cent of its income due to the government’s decision to make the BBC bear the cost of free licence fees for the over-75s?

To date the cost of free licence fees has been met from the welfare budget. In the 2010 licence fee settlement, the government froze the licence fee for a five-year period and forced the BBC to take on responsibility for the funding of S4C, the Welsh language channel, and the World Service.

The result has been less innovation, substantial production cutbacks, and the loss of services not only at the BBC but at S4C and the World Service. Thousands of BBC jobs have been shed since 2010.

This recent experience demonstrates the bad practice of setting the licence fee settlement, as was done last July, and then decide on what the BBC is required to do.

Surely the most effective way to plan, honestly, for the BBC’s future is to set the BBC’s responsibilities by way of the Charter Review and then decide on the funding needed to deliver on those responsibilities. As things stand today, the BBC faces major funding cuts with no transparency about future audience services.

The government’s backing for the creation of BBC Studios as a wholly owned subsidiary by 2017 is another high risk strategy which sets alarm bells ringing for anyone who cares about the future of the BBC.

There is currently a mixed production economy at the BBC in which a minimum of 25 per cent, up to a maximum of 50 per cent, of BBC output for television is produced by the independent production sector. The plan to put 100 per cent of output for BBC TV up for competition by 2028 will have a destabilising effect on BBC production.

Production talent at the BBC can compete with the best. However, will there be a level playing field when the loudest calls are for more commercialisation at the BBC?

The proposal also risks squandering the BBC’s assets as returns on the commercial exploitation of BBC programmes would no longer be the property of the BBC, returned to the Corporation for the benefit of the licence fee payer.

 The licence fee payer is being let down by BBC management and by the government, neither of which is fully committed to our great public service broadcaster. The public is massively supportive of the BBC and yet their views are being ignored.

The government says it wants the BBC to produce more programming for children and yet the plan is to put 100 per cent of both Children’s and Sports output out to competitive tender by 2019. The government’s thinking is muddled and wasteful and the audience is being overlooked as politicians meddle with the BBC’s future.

The BBC Love It or Lose It campaign, launched by BECTU and subsequently embraced by all unions in the Federation of Entertainment Unions, reflects some of the strength of feeling in support of a well-resourced and independent BBC.

Over 25,000 people have signed the petition and public events have met with enthusiastic support. The campaign will continue as the white paper is debated in parliament.

Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of BECTU, the media and entertainment union. 

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