BBC must focus on ‘distinctive content’

A selection of BBC programmes

The BBC must put “distinctive content” at its heart, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has said.

It is part of a major overhaul of how the BBC is run, which has been unveiled by the government.

The licence fee will continue for at least 11 years and viewers will need to pay it to use BBC iPlayer.

Mr Whittingdale made clear he was “emphatically not saying the BBC should not be popular”.

The culture secretary was referring to earlier speculation that the corporation would not be allowed to schedule popular programmes against rivals.

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“Commissioning editors should ask consistently of new programming: ‘Is this idea sufficiently innovative and high quality?’ rather than simply ‘How will it do in the ratings?'”

He also said the BBC will be “required to give greater focus to under-served audiences, in particular those from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds, and those in the nations and regions”.

“We want the BBC to be the leading broadcaster in promoting diversity,” he said.

Media captionThe Culture Secretary announces a major overhaul of how the BBC works and is run

Responding to Mr Whittingdale’s statement, Maria Eagle, the shadow culture secretary, said: “We know the secretary of state is extremely hostile to the BBC. He wants it diminished in size.

She said the culture secretary’s views were “totally out of step with the licence fee-payers who value and support the BBC”.

Ms Eagle said she did “not agree that [Mr Whittingdale’s] obsession with distinctiveness should be imported into the BBC’s mission statement.”

The White Paper states that the trust governing the BBC is being abolished and a board will be set up to run day-to-day matters, while Ofcom will become the corporation’s external regulator.

The licence fee, which has been frozen at £145.50 since 2010, will now rise with inflation from next year.

Measures include:

  • A new mission statement for the BBC: “To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality, and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain.”
  • A new unitary board which will govern the corporation, replacing the BBC Trust.
  • The BBC will have the ability to appoint the majority of its board, independent of government
  • Editorial decisions will be explicitly the responsibility of the director general
  • Ofcom will be given the power to regulate all BBC services
Media captionChris Evans: ‘I’m paid too much’

Star pay

Also announced was a requirement for all employees and freelancers who earn more than £450,000 to be named.

The move will affect some of the corporation’s best-known names, such as Chris Evans, Gary Lineker and Graham Norton, although their actual salaries will not be revealed.

The White Paper will be debated by MPs in the autumn before the new charter is drafted and signed for the next 11 years.

The BBC’s current Royal Charter – the agreement which sets the broadcaster’s rules and purpose – expires at the end of December.

Media captionLord Hall: White Paper raises ‘issues’ around BBC independence

Responding to the White Paper, BBC director-general Tony Hall said it “delivers a mandate for the strong, creative BBC the public believe in. A BBC that will be good for the creative industries – and most importantly of all, for Britain.

“There has been a big debate about the future of the BBC. Searching questions have been asked about its role and its place in the UK. That’s right and healthy, and I welcome that debate.

“At the end, we have an 11-year charter, a licence fee guaranteed for 11 years, and an endorsement of the scale and scope of what the BBC does today,” he said.

But he said there were some areas where the BBC will continue to talk to the government to address remaining issues, including allowing the National Audit Office to be the BBC’s auditor and how the new board is appointed.

He said: “We have an honest disagreement with the government on this. I do not believe that the appointments proposals for the new unitary board are yet right.

“We will continue to make the case to government. It is vital for the future of the BBC that its independence is fully preserved.”


Analysis from the BBC’s Nick Higham

For an exercise billed as a far-reaching reform, what’s striking about the white paper is how little will change fundamentally.

The licence fee remains, indexed to inflation rather than frozen as it has been for the past five years. It’ll still be a criminal offence not to pay it, and it’ll be extended to cover the growing numbers of people who watch the BBC’s iPlayer catch-up service rather than live television broadcasts, though it’s not yet clear exactly how that will work.

The proposal to abolish the BBC Trust and make Ofcom the corporation’s regulator is largely uncontroversial – but where the BBC and the culture secretary are at odds is over the appointment by government of some members of the new BBC board.

The corporation thinks that represents a potential threat to its independence and the director-general Tony Hall said government and the BBC had “an honest difference” on the question.

The BBC’s critics, particularly its commercial rivals – newspapers foremost among them – will be disappointed: they’d hoped for more stringent measures to curb the corporation’s ability to compete, especially online.

The Shadow Culture Secretary, Maria Eagle, said most of what she called John Whittingdale’s wilder proposals had been watered down or dumped and that he’d been overruled by the prime minister and chancellor.

If he was, that was perhaps to avoid a political row which might divide conservatives in the run up to the EU referendum. But the BBC will be given a new mission statement, not just to inform, educate and entertain but to do so in a way that is impartial, high-quality and distinctive.

Expect much discussion of exactly what is “distinctive” and what isn’t.


BBC must focus on ‘distinctive content’

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