How John Whittingdale broke his promise to listen to every viewer’s opinion on the BBC

The Culture Secretary asked Radio Times readers what they thought about the future of the BBC - but he didn't read their replies, reveals RT editor Ben Preston

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When the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale appealed last summer for viewers and listeners to join a national debate to shape the future of the BBC, Radio Times took him at his word.

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In August, we published 16 questions echoing those in the Culture Department’s official consultation and invited readers to make their voice heard.

At stake was the future of the BBC and the Royal Charter that underpins it: big questions from the size of the corporation to the kind of programmes it makes and even the future of the licence fee itself.

Your response was astonishing – particularly in an age where people are supposedly disillusioned by the political process. More than 9,000 of you replied. Some 3,000 people sent back meticulously compiled questionnaires through the post, putting a heavy strain on the RT post room. A further 6,000 of you responded online with thoughtful, considered views.

Mr Whittingdale welcomed this unprecedented response from RT readers in September. A spokesman for his department told us: “The BBC is one of this nation’s most treasured institutions… We are committed to a thorough and open Charter Review and want to hear everyone’s views. We welcome the contribution from Radio Times readers.”

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So we had a spring in our step when we handed your replies to the Culture Department in October. Few people know television and radio as well as Radio Times readers. 

This magazine prefers to give our readers a voice – and the information you need to form a view – rather than to launch shrill campaigns in your name. It felt like mission accomplished when we delivered a sack bulging with your written replies and a memory stick loaded with the 6,000 responses we received online. We also published in these pages a summary of your views, which included 96% support for the principle of a publicly funded broadcaster, with 91% supporting the licence fee.

Six months later, on 1st March, Mr Whittingdale published the results of his consultation in a report. The next day he told a distinguished audience at the Oxford Media Convention that this report would influence the new draft Royal Charter: “Every response we received matters. Every response has been read.”

But there was a problem. Mr Whittingdale wasn’t telling the truth. That’s a serious charge for a magazine to make. How do we know that the Secretary of State was wrong to say that “every response has been read”?

The answer is simple. When Radio Times submitted the memory stick containing those 6,000 replies from readers, we encrypted it so that your names and addresses were protected until they reached the civil service team responsible for summarising the public’s views. We included a short explanatory note with a telephone number explaining that we’d reveal the password to unlock the file once it arrived in the right hands.

But that telephone call never came.

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The views of over 6,000 Radio Times readers were not read – they were ignored. Instead the Department’s report merely acknowledged it had received “other feedback” from 8,500 RT readers (sic, the real figure was more than 9,000).

We asked the Culture Department what had happened. Their answers took a while coming and were, to be polite, somewhat opaque.

At first the department stood by Mr Whittingdale’s words to the Oxford conference. Only when challenged about how they “read every response” without being able to open the memory stick, did they change tack.

A spokeswoman insisted the digital responses were “still being taken into consideration” – even though the consultation report has now been published and the department still hasn’t asked for the password that would allow them to read them.

Radio Times readers’ written responses, said the spokeswoman, had also been fed into the thinking summarised in the report but could not be included in the 192,000 replies on which it was based because RT’s questions differed from the official ones.

It’s true that some of the questions Radio Times presented to readers were different from the official ones. We had, as you might expect, translated “officialese” into plain English so they could be easily understood.

So is this shameful mess the result of a conspiracy or a cock-up? Or both?

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Mr Whittingdale is known to have been deeply suspicious of the consultation exercise conducted by his own department because the majority of replies were triggered by a campaigning group called 38 Degrees. A news story in the Daily Telegraph even suggested he was so alarmed that the process had been hijacked by left-wingers that he had considered paying for focus groups as an alternative way to establish what the public thinks about the BBC.

In the event this didn’t happen but the Culture Department was so overwhelmed by the work of analysing 192,000 responses, it flew workers from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs down from Scotland to help out. Perhaps this daunting workload prompted officials to find a technicality that allowed them to save them time and effort by excluding RT readers’ 9,000 responses?

Mr Whittingdale is certainly no friend of the BBC as it is now. His views are well-known because for a decade he chaired the Culture and Media Select Committee. As you can see from the panel alongside, the decision to exclude RT readers’ from the process also excluded some trenchant supporters of the principle of publicly funded broadcasting. However, our readers did not give the BBC a blank cheque and many expressed doubts about the numbers of shiny-floor entertainment shows and irritation with high-profile scheduling clashes.

But whatever the truth, the Secretary of State must now act decisively if he wants to regain the trust of Radio Times readers and secure real public support for any changes he seeks to make at the BBC.

Mr Whittingdale needs to demonstrate that he is a man of his word: the views of all 9,000 Radio Times readers must be read and published by his department.

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Ben Preston is editor of Radio Times