Since the recent publication of the Clementi review into BBC governance the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, has been busy fighting a war on two fronts: both with the BBC and with his own Prime Minister, whom he has accused of scaremongering over Europe.
He claimed that BBC One was ‘dumbing down’, before raising the prospect of further top slicing of the licence fee, which he said was “not necessarily entirely the property of the BBC”. He has bullied the Corporation over its editorial line on Europe, and continued his habit of dictating to the BBC what content it should and should not be commissioning, going so far as to recommend axing some of its most popular programmes like the Voice.
What the Culture Secretary seems to be forgetting is how strongly the public disagrees with him. Over four-fifths of the respondents to the public consultation – published last week as the second largest Government consultation ever – believe it is serving audiences well. Three-quarters of people believe that the BBC’s content is of sufficiently high quality and is distinctive from other broadcasters.
In an interview with the Sunday Times last weekend, the Culture Secretary outlined his plan to stuff a new governing board with Tory cronies, going way beyond the proposals outlined by Clementi. A new unitary board will have significant influence over the Corporation’s editorial content and programme commissioning, making its independence vital. Once again, the Culture Secretary’s plans for the BBC jar with the public, with 73% of the responses to the consultation stating their desire to see the BBC remain independent.
Whilst the Secretary of State meddles with the BBC against the wishes of the pubic, he has the cheek to state—somewhat implausibly—his view that the independence of the BBC is sacrosanct.
You might think he would apply such a pro-active approach to all aspects of his job. Instead, he has been content to stand by and watch as the National Media Museum in Bradford has its world leading photography collection relocated south, saying—equally implausibly—that he is ’very reluctant to micro-manage’. Only after it had emerged that the decision to relocate the collection had already been agreed as part of a backroom deal, was one of his junior ministers forced into calling a meeting to discuss this. Clearly the Secretary of State seems to be saving his propensity to micromanage for the BBC.
The loss of this collection would be a huge blow for Bradford, and would clearly be contrary to the wishes of those who want their work preserved and accessible in the north. It is galling that while the Secretary of State has been so focused on meddling with the BBC and the Tory Party’s infighting over Europe, he has failed to take action over the hollowing out of one of the north of England’s most treasured museums.
With the Culture Secretary positioning himself firmly on the other side of the Europe debate from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, there are clearly reasonable questions about the likelihood of any further delay on BBC Charter Renewal should there be a change of Secretary of State after June’s referendum.
All of this comes on top of the worrying reports that the White Paper on the BBC Charter will now not be published until after the EU referendum. And we now learn that Ministers in the Department are discussing the prospect of extending the current Charter by six months. If this turns out to be the case then Ministers would have missed the target that they have set themselves, demonstrating their incompetence and the extent to which they have become distracted by infighting over Europe.
The Government has already created a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the BBC, damaging the Corporation’s ability to function and plan ahead. To cast further doubt on the BBC’s future by delaying the White Paper and extending the current charter would be a disgraceful failure.
I have said that it was wrong for the BBC to accept the burden of financing free TV licenses for over 75s because it compromised the Corporation’s independence and its finances. As a result I have been pleased to see the BBC stand up and defend itself properly in the face of vicious meddling on the part of the Secretary of State.
The BBC is there for all of us, not to be forced to do the bidding for the Government of the day. The future of our national broadcaster and the very principle of public service broadcasting in this country is under threat from a Government tearing itself apart over Europe and which is seeking to bend our much loved national broadcaster to its political will.
The BBC must not be hung out to dry because the Secretary of State has fallen out with the Prime Minister over Europe.
Maria Eagle is Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary and MP for Garston and Halewood