On Thursday the Government finally published its long-awaited white paper "A BBC for the future: a broadcaster of distinction".
Over the past couple of years the relevant Secretary of State, John Whittingdale MP, has commissioned a number of reviews into the future structure and funding of the bloated Corporation.
Of particular interest to the TV Licensing Blog was David Perry QC's review into the future funding of the BBC, which concluded that the TV licence fee, although with its problems, was the most appropriate funding method for the foreseeable future.
Whittingdale, the former chairman of the influential House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, has a history of being critical towards the management and funding of the BBC, but it appears his new Cabinet position has calmed his previously outspoken opinions.
Given his previous anti-BBC rhetoric, it is very disappointing that the Secretary of State has veered away from a radical overhaul of the national broadcaster, instead tending towards mere tinkering around the edges.
The key recommendations of the white paper (in the Government's words) are as follows:
- Enable the BBC to make even more great programmes for audiences to enjoy, by incentivising more distinctive output that informs, educates and entertains.
- Appoint Ofcom as the external independent regulator of the BBC, as recommended by the independent review by Sir David Clementi. Ofcom is the widely respected and experienced media and telecommunications regulator.
- Increase the licence fee level in line with inflation for five years from 2017/18 so that the BBC can continue to provide high quality, distinctive content for all audiences. It will consequently remain one of the best-funded public service broadcasters in the world.
- Ensure the BBC’s market impacts are assessed more widely and effectively by providing Ofcom with powers to investigate any aspect of BBC services.
- Open the BBC’s content commissioning to greater competition, by removing the in‑house guarantee for all television content except news and news‑related current affairs. This will provide hundreds of millions of pounds of new opportunities for the independent sector, help drive efficiency savings and provide new creative opportunities for the BBC. The government also provides in-principle support for BBC plans to spin-off its in-house production into a new subsidiary, BBC Studios, opening up new opportunities to produce programmes for the BBC and other broadcasters in the UK and internationally.
- Establish a new contestable public service content fund to create new opportunities for others to provide the best public service broadcasting content in the UK and enhance plurality in the provision of public service content.
- Enhance the efficiency of the BBC by expecting the board to investigate issues relating to excessive management layers, and overall staffing levels. This could deliver significant further efficiency savings by the end of the next Charter.
- Promote greater transparency within the BBCthrough enabling licence fee payers to understand how the BBC spends its budget between different types of programming, and through new transparency on remuneration of talent paid over £450,000.
- Deliver a stronger role for the National Audit Office to scrutinise BBC spending and value for money. The National Audit Office will become the BBC’s financial auditor given the £3.7 billion of public money that it spends. The scope of its value for money investigations will be explored further.
- Help make the BBC a better partner, with a new focus on partnership in the Charter. The BBC should leverage its size and scale to enhance and bolster the creative industry sector by working more in productive partnership with UK players of all sizes so that others can benefit more extensively from its expertise and reputation.
- Ensure that the BBC serves all nations and regions in the UK through a clear focus on the BBC’s obligations in the new operating licence regime, clear board-level responsibilities, and a continued commitment to the out-of-London production targets.
- Enshrine a commitment to diversity in the Charter, as part of a new overall commitment to ensuring the BBC serves all audiences. The BBC should be at the forefront of representing diversity both on and off screen.
- Ensure the BBC supports and invigorates local news provision across the UK, through the delivery of proposals to work in partnership with the local news industry to support local democracy, including an additional 150 local news journalists.
- Embed the core principle of the impartiality of the BBC in its overall mission to ensure it remains the most trusted provider of high quality news for audiences in the UK and abroad.
- Establish an 11‑year Charter to 2027, separating Charter Review from the political cycle and enhancing the BBC’s independence.
- Introduce a new regularised process for setting the licence fee, giving the BBC the financial certainty it needs by setting the licence fee every five years and ensuring that future licence fee settlements can be informed by independent advice for the benefit of licence fee payers.
- Modernise the licence fee by requiring all those who consume BBC on-demand content (e.g. on BBC iPlayer) to pay the licence fee, introducing more flexible payment plans and taking forward recommendations from David Perry QC’s review of television licence fee enforcement. The Charter will also empower the BBC to pilot some elements of subscription in addition to their current services.
- Provide greater freedom for the BBC to manage its own budgets by phasing out protected funding for broadband (£150 million a year) and local television (£5 million a year), while protecting the World Service, which brings high quality and impartial news to global audiences including where free speech is limited.
These recommendations will now be debated in Parliament with a view to enacting the relevant new legislation.
Of particular note is the Government's proposal to close to so-called BBC iPlayer loophole. Under current arrangements a person can view non-live catch-up services on the BBC iPlayer without the need for a TV licence. In future, the Government wants to make a TV licence mandatory for anyone choosing to view these online BBC services. Even after these changes, viewers will be able to enjoy the non-live catch-up services of other broadcasters without the need for a TV licence.
Notice also that the TV licence fee, currently frozen at £145.50 since 2010, will begin to increase in line with the rate of inflation from 2017. The fee is expected to rise to about £160 by 2020.
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