Despite the government's apparent hostility, the corporation is on a rollby Ian Hargreaves / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
On Monday 11th May 2015, John Whittingdale, MP for the Essex constituency of Maldon, was appointed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Given his credentials as a Thatcherite ultra and Brexiteer, the Daily Telegraph confidently greeted the appointment as “an effective declaration of war” on a BBC facing renewal of its Royal Charter.
Whittingdale, the reasoning went, was not only motivated by tribal instinct to cut the BBC in favour of its more politically reliable commercial rivals; he also had 10 years as chair of the cross-party House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, from where he attacked the BBC’s scale and funding platform. He was not only an ideologue, but a well-informed ideologue.
One year and one day later, however, on Thursday 12th May, Whittingdale unveiled his BBC White Paper. Now he spoke in parliament of “one of our country’s greatest institutions” and proposed not the BBC’s evisceration, but an end to the six-year freeze on its universally payable licence fee and a loose commitment to retain similar arrangements for the foreseeable future. This came wrapped in an 11-year charter, designed to protect the BBC from party politics at their most intense. Coming from a man famed for calling the BBC licence fee “worse than the poll tax,” it was not so much a climb down as a free-fall leap from a high ledge. The Daily Mail could only gasp that it was “a damp squib.”
Two sets of questions arise. First, what happened in these 366 days to turn a spit-roasting into a Mary Berry tea party? How was Whittingdale turned? Then, a second set of bigger questions: where does the White Paper actually leave the BBC? Has it gained politically bankable air cover to see it through the next decade of digital media turbulence? Or is the White Paper’s vision one in which the BBC’s true enemies are to be located inside the machine; operating through a newly structured board, some of its members government-appointed, and through the agency of the Office of Communications (Ofcom), the…