This week we step up the fight to save the great BBC from the Tories

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john whittingdale
Tomorrow, we will finally get to see the Government’s proposals for reform of the BBC.

This was a process which began with threats before the General Election, continued afterwards with the appointment of John Whittingdale, and has reached a pitch with selective briefing of plans which could only diminish our great BBC.

It may yet be that, at the eleventh hour, good sense has prevailed and ministers have rowed back from some of the wilder suggestions of recent weeks from a Culture Secretary who recently described the abolition of the BBC as a “tempting prospect”.

But we will remain vigilant because public service broadcasting in this country is too precious and fragile for it to be damaged by the ideologically-driven Mr Whittingdale.

This week I was part of a cross-party group of peers who set out three key tests against which the White Paper tomorrow must be judged.

These tests state that nothing should be done which:

  •   Compromises an independent BBC.
  •   Affects the BBC’s funding from the licence fee.
  •   Diminishes the BBC’s mission to educate, inform and entertain the whole country.

Independence of the BBC has become a key battleground.  It appears the Government is seeking a “break clause” – a review after five years of the BBC’s new Charter.

The effect of this would mean the BBC having to look over its shoulder at its political masters in every parliament just as it has in this one; ministers sitting in judgment after every general election just as ministers have sat in judgment of it after the last one, and having to fight the whims and prejudices of every Culture Secretary just as it has fought this one.

It also appears that the Government wants to stack a new all-powerful BBC board with its own appointees.  This would be a real step towards moving from a public  service broadcaster rightly envied across the world to a state broadcaster run according to the will of government  – the likes of which we see far too many around the world today.

Similar threats have been made to the BBC’s financial independence which has always depended on the licence fee.

There has been speculation that ministers, not content with imposing cuts of hundreds of millions of pounds last autumn when they made the BBC responsible for free TV licences for the over-75s, now want to go further.

We will have to see the detail of the proposals but any suggestion that licence fee money should go into a pot which commercial rivals can bid for too would represent a significant threat to the BBC’s financial independence.

There has been a rash of similar stories that Mr Whittingdale wants to impose new rules curtailing the BBC’s freedom on scheduling or editorial control.

Perhaps the Culture Secretary wants Poldark or Strictly scheduled for 6am on a Sunday morning so they do not damage the viewing figures for ITV and Sky.

It’s the same with the idea that the BBC – but not its commercial rivals – should publish the earnings of its top talent.

Any such changes would not benefit viewers or listeners. They would only benefit commercial rivals.

The founding principles of the BBC are to educate, inform and entertain.

No commercial broadcaster would have thought of putting baking at the heart of its schedule, or for that matter a programme based on ballroom dancing.  Brilliant British entertainment at its very best.

And I know what will happen if the BBC’s ability to entertain the people of our country is undermined.

In a few short years, the Government will come back and say that because viewing figures are down and the BBC is no longer serving all the licence fee payers, that justifies another huge round of cuts.

According to the Government’s own public consultation, it’s not what licence fee payers want. So it can only be what sections of the Government want.

I love how the BBC makes us come together to laugh, to cry and even to bake.

And fighting to save that Great BBC is what I’ll be doing tomorrow.

I hope you can join me.

Waheed Alli is a Labour peer and was a co-founder of television production company Planet 24.

 

 

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