The publication of the White Paper on the future of the BBC is a significant political event for many reasons. It is significant because of the central role that the BBC, as the national broadcaster, has in British life. It is significant because of the context - the sorry aftermath of the Hutton inquiry - in which the discussions about the preceding Green Paper took place. And it is significant because of the speed of change in the broadcasting sector, which is probably without precedent. When the BBC's Royal Charter next comes up for renewal, in 10 years' time, the broadcasting landscape will look very different from how it appears today.
This time last year, when the Green Paper on the BBC was published, we welcomed the attempt to make a clearer division between oversight and executive functions. The replacement of the board of governors with a BBC Trust responsible to licence-payers means that the roles of "champion" and "watchdog" should be more distinct. We still wonder, though, whether the separation of the two functions goes far enough.
Our chief criticisms of the Green Paper were that it took too little account of the technical changes afoot in broadcasting and did too little to guarantee a truly competitive broadcasting climate. Our questions about the impact of technical change remain. The White Paper guarantees that the BBC will be "fully funded" by the licence for the next 10 years, and although there will be a review of the BBC's financing, starting in 2012, nothing will happen before 2016. There was an argument for making the Charter period shorter, though the resources the BBC would spend on making its case provide a compelling argument for keeping the status quo.
What the Government has done is to toughen the competition requirements and increase checks on the BBC's accountability. The BBC will have to report plans for new services and significant changes to existing services to the overall broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom - which will have the duty to solicit objections from potential competitors and produce a published report on the likely impact. This is a good thing - and overdue. The BBC's pre-eminence can be retained without stifling the commercial enterprise of others.
Also positive is the role for the National Audit Office in scrutinising the BBC's cost-cutting. If, as it appears, the licence system is to survive for another decade, the way the BBC spends our money needs to be monitored more closely and more publicly than it is at present.
Of the other changes from the Green Paper, one is a plus - the stronger recognition that the BBC's Reithian remit includes a duty to entertain, as well as inform and educate. But the BBC will have to show that it is not spending its money on shows that could as well be produced in the commercial sector.
We fear another change, however, could be less benign. The Government has added a second tier of "purposes" for the BBC that have to do with citizenship and civil society, reflecting the identity of the UK and promoting the UK to the world and vice versa. It is hard not to see here a lingering legacy of the Hutton inquiry; hard, too, to believe this will enhance the special position the BBC deservedly occupies. One of the Corporation's great merits is the breadth of its approach and the absence of overt national cheer-leading. If patriotism is to become a gauge of the BBC's value for money, we are heading into threatening territory indeed.
The money that pays for BBC domestic services does not belong to this Government or to any other and should not be used to serve its purpose. It comes from the licence-payer. Once constituted, the new BBC Trust should start to establish its credentials as "the voice of the licence-payers" by saying this loud and clear.Reuse content