Much has been made of the impact on the BBC of the new man in charge of the Department of Culture Media and Sport. John Whittingdale is on record as saying the BBC Licence Fee is ‘worse than the poll tax’ and that the current £145.50 charge is unsustainable.
But before fans of Auntie fashion their wax dolls of the new Secretary of State and sharpen their pins as they read headlines about the future of the Corporation’s funding being in doubt, perhaps a pause is required.
Sure, he’s no fan of the licence fee but while his language may be slightly more colourful his position is really no different from his predecessor’s. In fact it’s probably exactly in line with that of all his cabinet colleagues from David Cameron down and it will come as no surprise to the BBC whose senior figures will have been thinking on the same lines as they look ahead.
Whittingdale’s remark about the licence being unsustainable also made it clear he’s talking long-term – in other words no change in the forthcoming review of the BBC’s charter so no change ‘til the next Charter period in 2026. While his appointment may have been seen as a shot across the bows of the Beeb he is no hothead. Having served as chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee for a decade he is certainly knowledgeable about his new portfolio – and that’s more than might be said about some of his new colleagues.
While the present BBC funding system seems safe for now, though, there is one aspect of the BBC that Whittingdale is likely to be robust about as Charter renewal gets underway and that’s the governance of the Corporation. The new Secretary of State believes the BBC Trust, which is currently responsible for policing the BBC, is too close to the organisation and should be abolished. He wants more rigorous oversight, including financial accountability to the National Audi Office, and we could see the setting up of a new body to oversee public service broadcasting.
That in turn raises some interesting questions about whether Ofcom might be split so its broadcasting responsibilities are separated from its telecoms function and the future of Channel 4. At present it’s publicly owned but funded by advertising but it could be privatised.
There is one other aspect of Mr. Whittingdale’s appointment that should not go unremarked. While he wants ‘the most rigorous independent scrutiny,’ for the BBC he is a supporter of self-regulation for the print media through the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Surely we couldn’t have one rule for one group and another for the rest……not when we are all in this together.