Corroding independence and universality: the white paper on the BBC

By Paul Hodkinson

When the government’s white paper on the BBC was published yesterday, it was widely reported as a government climb-down and more notable for what was not changing than what was. The collective feeling seemed to be that the corporation had got away lightly, having retained its licence fee, avoided having the majority of its board appointed by government and escaped invasive restrictions on the scheduling of prime-time shows, for example. While such a reaction may be justified to a point there is a danger that sweeping changes that promise to fundamentally transform the BBC’s standing pass through largely unchallenged on the basis that things could have been worse. Might the expectations of an all-out assault raised by prior briefings now be enabling a somewhat less spectacular erosion of the corporation to proceed with minimal challenge?

It is easy to see why the news that government would not, after all, have the power to appoint the majority of the board that directly runs the BBC came as a relief to the corporation’s supporters. Yet, the notion that ministers will nevertheless be appointing a substantial proportion of this new ‘joint-board’ represents a historic breach of the corporation’s operational independence. Ever since its establishment as a non-commercial corporation, operation ‘at arms-length’ from ministers was assured by strict separation between the corporation’s Board of Governors (later BBC Trust) which was responsible for oversight, and the group who directed and ran the corporation at operational level. The prospect of government appointments to the latter suggests unprecedented influence on the priorities, strategies and every day running of the organisation. The BBC is further weakened, meanwhile, by the transfer of responsibility for oversight/regulation to Ofcom, a body which, unlike the BBC Trust, has responsibilities across the media sphere and does not necessarily have the best interests of the corporation at its heart.

A further feature of the white paper is the amendment of the BBC’s mission statement as follows: “To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality, and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain.” The explicit emphasis here on distinctiveness may, at first glance, seem commensurate with long-established purposes of public service broadcasting. And specific stipulations about provision for minorities are to be welcomed for a corporation whose level of popularity with many such groups is not what it should be.

Yet placing such prominent emphasis on distinctiveness – alongside ‘quality’ (defined by whom?) – at the heart of the BBC’s raison d’être risks steering it towards becoming a niche organisation, something that would undermine another principle at the heart of the corporation’s history – that of universality, or the notion that the BBC must be for all of us. This connects to a long-standing argument about the purpose of the corporation. Should it maximise popular appeal and engagement or should it refrain from such competition and provide only what other providers do not? In response, I would advocate here Michael Tracey’s (1998) suggestion that public service broadcasters should seek to make what’s popular high in quality and what’s high in quality popular. The danger with the current proposals, however, is that the importance of popularity – and with it the fundamental notion that the BBC is for everyone – may become fatally undermined as the corporation gradually becomes more oriented to middle-class understandings of quality and specialist content and services.

Popular appeal, meanwhile, may also be a casualty of the requirement to reveal the salaries of top BBC talent. Campaigned for by much of the UK press, this move is justified through recourse to notions of transparency to the public, whose licence fees pay for the corporation and its talent. The problem, though, is that the BBC may find itself at a significant competitive disadvantage with respect to its ability to attract the stars that help it engage with large proportions of the public. Will star presenters and others want to work for the corporation, as opposed to a commercial rival if, as a consequence of doing so, they find themselves pilloried in the press for how much they earn? Will press and public pressure make it impossible for the BBC to pay the kinds of salaries needed to attract such talent in the first place? Notwithstanding the arguments in favour of such transparency, it is difficult to see how such a move helps the corporation to maintain its standing and popularity.

Time will tell, of course, how great or rapid an impact such changes will ultimately have when put into practice. The concern expressed here, though, is that the level of scrutiny and critique of measures that fundamentally challenge core historic principles of the corporation is not as great as it could and should be amidst the collective feeling that the BBC got off lightly.


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