White Paper on the BBC: Blueprint staves off threat to BBC services: White Paper on Broadcasting allows television licence fee to remain - MPs say pay channels must not have exclusive access to major sports events

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THE Government's White Paper on Broadcasting is a blueprint for the BBC's survival - but at a cost. John Birt, the director-general, has won the debate about funding. He has also staved off the threat of the BBC being made to take advertising and of being forced to surrender some of its services, especially Radio 1. These are what he is likely to regard as the main plus and minus points of the White Paper.


Survival: The Royal charter is to be renewed for another 10 years. Its chief remit will be to continue to make a wide range of programmes. It will keep both its television and all five of its radio stations during that period. The licence fee will remain its chief source of revenue at least until 2001. It will not be required to take advertising or accept programme sponsorship to boost its funds.

Programmes: Replies to the Government's consultation document have convinced ministers that audiences do not want big changes. There is no desire for the BBC to be confined to 'ghetto' programmes unlikely to be provided by other broadcasters, such as education and serious current affairs. The BBC should seek to ensure that almost every household uses its services each week, so that people get a reasonable return on their licence fee.

Radio 1: Although this popular music network competes directly with many commercial services, it is given a specific nod of approval as part of the BBC's 'obligation to cater for a wide range of tastes and interests'. Calls for its privatisation are rejected.

Producer Choice: The White Paper welcomes this free-market system of programme-making, where producers choose between using outside facilities or those of the BBC. It has been the source of much contention in the BBC since its introduction last year, but the Government believe it helps diversify programme sources. Its success is one reason why the BBC has escaped any increase in the quota of programmes - 25 per cent of its output - that it is obliged to have made by independent producers.

Editorial freedom: The proposed agreement between the BBC and the Government, to be attached to its new royal charter, will for the first time set out in writing the BBC's independence from Government interference in its programme content and management, although the Secretary of State will keep his reserve powers to require or forbid the broadcasting of specific items. The purpose of the Governors will be redefined. 'Their role is to look after the public's interest in the BBC, not to manage it.'

Commercial activities: The Government wants to see more of them. The BBC will be allowed to set up commercial broadcasting subsidiaries similar to its World Service Television, so long as no licence-fee money is devoted to them. This means that it could go into consortiums bidding for new radio and licences.

Regulation: The plan to merge the Broadcasting Standards Council and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission gives the BBC one less regulator to worry about. The new body will combine the BSC's watchdog role over taste and decency with the BCC's remit to adjudicate in complaints by individuals or organisations of unfair treatment in programmes.

Transmission facilities: Not to be privatised at this stage, as had been widely forecast, but the situation is being kept under review and the BBC has promised that it will not keep anything in its ownership unless there is a clear reason for doing so.

World Service: Plaudits for the overseas radio service for the 'accuracy of its reporting and the range and quality of its programmes'. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to pay for the service, but will no longer have the sole right to dictate the areas in which it should broadcast. Henceforth the BBC will play a role in such decisions - an important victory for the World Service, which has long chafed under the FCO's regulation. The White Paper also praises the progress made by World Service Television, which operates on a commercial basis.


Sex and violence: 'Many people believe there is too much violence, sex and bad language in television programmes . . . The public may be less tolerant, particularly of violent scenes, than they were a few years ago.' The BBC should take more account of the views of the public on this and other programming issues.

Accountability: 'People want the BBC to be more approachable and responsive to its audiences.' The BBC should follow the Government's Citizen's Charter themes - improving quality and choice, setting and achieving standards, securing value for money and being accessible to the public. Some recent changes to services have provoked criticism because of insufficient explanation and consultation (presumably a reference to the introduction this year of the news and sports network, Radio 5 Live). The BBC's annual report and accounts should provide more information about how the BBC is meeting its programming and financial objectives.

The agreement: This new contract between the BBC and Government will saddle the BBC with several new obligations. It will oblige the corporation to maintain high programme standards, to treat controversial issues impartially and not to offend against taste and decency. It might also spell out exactly what has to be included in the Annual Report and Accounts in the way of information for listeners and viewers.

Regional: 'There is criticism that the BBC's programmes reflect the views and culture of only a small part of the population living in the south-east of England.' More programmes should be made in the regions and more heed should be taken of criticisms from Scotland and Wales that more nationally networked programmes should reflect life in their areas. The National Councils for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should set objectives for the BBC and monitor whether they have been achieved.

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