John Whittingdale should realise a strong BBC is in the national interest

The BBC needs to make the case for the licence fee more clearly than ever

May 22, 2015
Is the BBC heading for a tussle with the Government?  © Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
Is the BBC heading for a tussle with the Government? © Anthony Devlin/PA Wire












Was there clapping and cheering in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DMCS) when John Whittingdale was announced as the new Culture Secretary? There ought to have been. Having been run under the Coalition by two politicians on their way up (Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid) who were prepared to sacrifice pretty much anything to please the Treasury, and by Maria Miller, appointed because she was from the tribal right-wing and a woman, now the department has a properly experienced minister who, as the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, has tackled big issues such as phone-hacking. Whittingdale is a heavy metal-loving Wykehamist (he went to Winchester College), formed by that sceptical, puzzled, cerebral tradition  (as opposed to the more usual Cabinet fodder of Etonian Whig). It is the most important job he could have at the most important time for the policy of the department. He has been given responsibility for some of the things that define us, represent us and on the whole are successes.

But if the department's Permanent Secretary Sue Owen, who has been in place since 2013, has a spring in her step, BBC executives may not be so cheerful. Over the next 18 months, the BBC’s Charter has to be renegotiated, and the finance, governance and scope of the Corporation reimagined. Are the BBC’s commercial opponents rubbing their hands together with glee? They are numerous, vocal and determined. In the 1980s there was a ferocious attack on everything the BBC did: while it was not perfect, the public could see that the opposition to the BBC and the assault on it came from a clear political agenda. Now the attack is more difficult for the public to understand. The BBC faces an un-holy alliance of the anti-BBC left (who believe it is part of the sinister establishment) and the anti-BBC right (many of whom muttering “freedom” want it out the way). The well-resourced lobbyists for the commercial competition to the BBC are comfortable with the new Minister. The press—so competitive about much else—are already united in a vocal, co-ordinated attack on the BBC. It is not that they have a formal joint plan (well, not one we can see), they just understand where their interests lie.

The defenders of the BBC are alarmingly less organised and have fewer pulpits. Defending the BBC opens you up to attack. The BBC finds it hard to defend itself. Indeed, there is a key difference between the Corporation and much of its media opposition. One the public may not grasp. When the whole phone hacking, computer hacking, private eye using (for salacious and wrong stories—such practices are defensible in the public interest) story emerged, large parts of the press barely reported any of the wrong things they had been doing. The BBC, by contrast, much more frequently savages internal mistakes, managed in 2012 to more or less sack a Director-General, George Entwistle (a man who had made errors and was new to the job—not one who had overseen systematic injustices) live on the Today programme.

However, those that think the BBC matters have one source of glowing righteousness. Everyone has a view about the BBC, for better or worse, because everyone thinks—quite rightly—it is theirs. People (just as Mrs Thatcher did) want the BBC to represent more of what they think is right—actually they want more BBC not less.

Whittingdale calls himself a free-market Conservative, believing as a default position that things should be in the private sector, unless it is essential they are publicly funded. Asked before he became the Culture Secretary by the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins whether we need a BBC, he answered positively, saying that, “there are things which I think are in the public interest to have available for viewers but which would probably not be viable on a commercial basis.” But he also attacked the licence fee: “it’s very regressive, it’s very expensive to collect, you get these ridiculous letters threatening you with having your fingernails pulled out if you don’t admit that actually you’ve got a television hidden somewhere.”

He was also anti-Leveson; he voted against all of the proposals for a reformed press regulator, may be more susceptible to a renewed News Corps bid for more of BskyB, (a previous special advisor had worked for Sky; the new departmental advisor is still to be announced). Whittingdale may also be wary of the relentless press attention he will be subject to if he is not compliant with what the press want—this is a Minister in an exposed position with the BBC Charter renewal coming up.


BBC history is cyclical, with terminal possibilities. So there is déjà vu about the long-debated arguments that Whittingdale has already raised. They are all the more resonant as they are made against a background of Conservative complaints that the BBC was biased against them during the election. (Admittedly the SNP, from the anti-austerity left, also said it was anti-Scotland and biased against them).

Is the BBC too large? Should it be popular, or compensate for market failure and provide the bits other broadcasters have abandoned or have to be corralled into making: children, culture and current affairs? Does it spend money efficiently? Is it politically biased, too right-wing or too “pinko”? There is the problem of BBC governance. Should the trust be abolished, and the BBC come under OFCOM (politicising a very good regulator), or have a new internal board and reinvent the Governors? All these things are up for grabs. But if the problems are the same, the world of the media has shifted dramatically, even since the time of the last settlement in 2005. The BBC now faces global competition from Google, Facebook (dominant monopoly forces we ought to worry about) who have vast resources which compete with traditional broadcasting for attention. Think how differently the world would be understood if the BBC had been encouraged to launch a public service search engine? In this utopian scenario, sense, balance and importance would govern the algorithms of searching. Now we only have a ratings-agency view of the world. Google is great—we all use it—but it is not a neutral utility. Then the BBC faces another challenge about how news stories, content in general is increasingly distributed via social media.

Because the licence fee is paid by everyone, the BBC has had to serve everyone, with an obligation to spend it as a public service—not just on the bits of the audience that are powerful, or programmes that are most financially viable. It is this imaginative stardust that helps it represent all of us when it gets it right. From the brilliant Olympic coverage, to the deep satisfactions of Wolf Hall, to the wonders of the latest Election night, to the best reporting on Afghanistan, and especially to the consistent intelligence of Radio which brings you Melvyn Bragg, a day of War and Peace, a rejuvenated Desert Island Discs and the with the Proms about to start. The Great British Bake Off held the nation gripped. Radio 6 Music nurtures intelligent music. Much of this is just woven into our everyday lives but it always brings ideas, challenge and thinking to our condition.

And there is one large, arresting philosophical issue. After 30 years of a dominant free-market ideology, how should a successful public service be thought of? The BBC is not a failing, needy public service. It makes stuff people really want and could make more stuff in different ways that more people want. It is a national asset—holding power to account—an international beacon of quality and integrity. Often (but not always) it has been managed as all institutions ought to be—with an eye to the long-term future. It was John Birt’s far-seeing prescience that got the BBC online. That is now bitterly resented by the press—understandably, as they want to make money from their digital services. So the barrage of vilification of the BBC will only get louder. How do you argue for a collective, public interest that lies beyond the market?

The licence fee is hated by those who want to smash the BBC’s precious universality. But we need to unpack what matters most about the licence fee, not fetishise it. Beware many of the apparently plausible free-market solutions (such as subscription) which are designed to wreck the BBC not protect it. Subscription and its advocates know that it would fragment the BBC, marketise it, inevitably drive it towards some audiences and some genres and so get just what they really want: a smaller, less principled organisation that would dwindle. The licence fee has provided the BBC with an independent source of finance free from direct political interference. Most importantly of all the licence fee has not been tied into general government expenditure. Although they tried often enough in the 1970s and 1980s to link it this matters—because that way lies political control. Then the licence fee worked because it was related to the technology of the time. It was paid where people used the BBC. The licence fee also worked because it fitted how we used the product. This is no longer the case—my middle son is a devotee of BBC World Service. He wanted to organise a petition because he thought the World Service’s news values had been dumbed down in Newsday, getting rid of an established and thoughtful news agenda and replacing it with a falsely jocular and populist tone, and tragically abolishing the global arts programme. But, since he listens to them only on his computer he pays for none of them. How often does he use the BBC news website in a day? At work and at home all the time.

So the really important thing is to make sure that any reform of the finances (and governance) protects the values. It is worth remembering that there is huge public support for these, combined with an enduring vast public use of the BBC. So independence from political control, separation from general government expenditure, a regular, dependable income, preserving the peculiar and unique role of the institution and sustaining the capacity to represent and serve everyone (which is why the BBC must be encouraged to make popular programmes), and the obligation to go to audiences where they are, and how they use the media now is what matters. These sustain the capacity to be fair, impartial and balanced. So any proposed reform must pass the values test.

Despite a depressingly parochial election, where foreign policy barely featured—many of the conundrums Britain today faces are about our place in the world, in Europe but also in the Middle East and South Asia from where so many of our citizens originate. Russia, which we used to understand very well, is a very good example of a place we have lost the capacity to read. We need to understand the global society better and relate to it more intelligently. In the Cold War we won this struggle hands down and the BBC World Service, BBC Monitoring, a re-vamped and ambitious public service BBC news operation, are the best tool in this nation’s soft power locker. But will Philip Hammond the Foreign Secretary understand this—will Whittingdale, a Eurosceptic, have a wider sympathy for this potential, or is he another little Englander? We can only hope he has a wider understanding of the national interest— one that would recognise the unique potential of the Corporation internationally. Indeed will Whittingdale be a wrecker or a responsible guardian of an institution that needs to help us make sense of an uncertain national and international world? Mrs T loved the world role of the BBC almost as much as she railed against it domestically. Can Whittingdale see what matters, see the national interest and resist the intense pressure he will be under–especially from a powerful press?

Has the BBC—well lead under Tony Hall after a torrid period, investing in creative relationships, in possession of one of the greatest news organisations in the world, relating to science and the arts, almost the sole creator of original children’s programmes in the UK, the biggest patron of music—also got the right thinking in place to plan the BBC’s way into the future of a fast evolving media landscape?  The BBC is well led if it has policies in place for the next 15 years: in this way it can think more strategically than governments.

Hall feels as if he knows this. So it does not all depend on Whittingdale—yet he holds power over a very precious bit of national kit. Will he keep his eyes on our collective interest, our common good? Or will he fall prey to powerful lobbying and special pleading? In the past considerable Conservative Ministers—Douglas Hurd, William Whitelaw have protected a national treasure and now he has the chance to help it become as confident and innovative as we need it to be in uncertain times. Recently on trips for work to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan I saw the fragile beauty of free journalism and was almost embarrassed by the honour the BBC endows on us. The BBC puts our values in action. Let us hope that Whittingdale feels that he wants a better BBC. He will, of course, be judged by his stewardship of this priceless gift to ourselves and the world. But the battle will be dirty.

Jean Seaton is the author of Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the Nation, 1974-1987 (Profile)