With the BBC’s charter up for renewal, the Tories are taking the opportunity to attack ‘Auntie’, with all the barely disguised glee of kids in a candy shop. But, political swipes aside, the broadcaster does desperately need to change to survive in a world of online and on-demand. So, with upheaval on all fronts, now is actually a golden opportunity to reform.
Culture secretary John Whittingdale announced a ‘root and branch’ review of the BBC’s public service remit yesterday, to be published on Thursday. It will reportedly look at whether the Beeb needs to do more to be impartial, if it should be subject to more oversight from regulator Ofcom and, perhaps most importantly, if it’s overreaching its charter principles by going after 90% of the viewing public.
Whittingdale is being advised by a panel of eight media bigwigs, include Yahoo executive and former Channel 5 boss Dawn Airey and Ashley Highfield, the chairman of local newspaper group Johnston Press. Both have criticised the BBC in the past.
The review comes a week after the government handed over the £600m-plus annual cost for doling out free TV licences to over-75s, in return for keeping the licence fee until at least 2020 and allowing it to rise in line with inflation after a five-year freeze.
And it’s barely two weeks since the broadcaster announced 1,000 job cuts after the increase in viewers watching iPlayer free online instead of buying TVs meant licence fee income is set to be £150m lower than in 2011. Overall, it’s forecasting a 10% real-terms cut in funding over the next five years.
That’s probably far more than can be made up through ‘efficiency savings’, so something will have to give. The website is one possible area – there’s a good argument it is partly to blame for the struggles of other online news providers, although the BBC is far from the only free ‘quality’ news site. Or it could have to give up the cherished goal of serving the 90%, although its executives have long argued doing that would compromise the principle of the licence fee.
Whatever the solution, there is clearly a fundamental debate going on about the role and scope of public service broadcasting in the UK within a rapidly changing media landscape. As we’ve argued before, the government should be careful what it wishes for – whatever its faults, the BBC is still a huge selling point and soft power asset for Britain.
The Beeb, for its part, has a chance to whip itself into shape. It’ll be painful, but even without the Tories playing politics it’s clear that it’s necessary.