Is the BBC really at risk from the new government?

As David Cameron appoints hardliner John Whittingdale as culture secretary in the crucial run-up to BBC charter renewal, Ben Dowell examines whether this could spell trouble for the Corporation… and even Channel 4

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Before the election, former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies was in no doubt about what a Conservative election victory would mean for the BBC.

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“When the Conservatives got in, practically the first visitor David Cameron had was Rupert Murdoch, practically the first thing they did was freeze the licence fee with no consultation whatsoever,” Davies told a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch in January. “They attacked it immediately.

“If they win the next election they will do the same thing again. [The BBC] is under constant attack now. We are in a situation where the licence fee will never go up. I cannot imagine a rise being allowed now. And I genuinely believe in the BBC for its cultural worth. I think it is a magnificent powerhouse and I fear for it.

“Twenty years ago you couldn’t have a conversation where you could see the writing on the wall. Now there are powerful voices ranged against it.”

And now Davies’s fears appear to have become reality with the appointment of the hardline John Whittingdale as culture secretary.

Whittingdale, after all, is the man who was one of the prime architects of a damning parliamentary select committee report in February that cast doubt on the future of the licence fee.

In a separate speech, the MP – who chaired the culture, media and sport select committee before his promotion to the cabinet – described the annual charge as less fair than the poll tax and said that the levy was unsustainable in the long term.

Even before the Tory election win, the BBC’s outgoing controller of drama commissioning Ben Stephenson drew the battle lines when it came to the Corporation’s future with a bold statement which called for an increase in the charge.

“It really can’t keep cutting,” Stephenson told Radio Times. “And the truth is the market isn’t going to fill the gap of the BBC. There will be less drama and fewer jobs. It doesn’t make sense on an economic level. We do need to increase the licence fee…”

But is the situation really this clear cut?

Certainly, the BBC charter needs to be renewed by the end of 2016 and a new fee set. And from soundings RadioTimes.com has taken from the department of culture, media and sport and inside the BBC, the lobbying has begun in earnest. The timing of how the negotiations will take place is up to the DCMS and, barring any unforseen mishap, Whittingdale will be the person at the helm.

Privately the BBC is fearful and few people inside the Corporation believe that any government – let alone a Tory one – will be keen on trying to sell a licence fee increase to the public.

And yet with the fee having been frozen at its 2010 level of £145.50 until 31st March 2017 the BBC has been facing a real terms decrease every year for the past five years when inflation is factored in.

“Essentially it is death by a thousand cuts and there will come a point when the BBC cannot make more savings without being run into the ground,” one senior Corporation executive told RadioTimes.com.

“We have lost BBC3 – what else do we have to lose? Soon the BBC will no longer be able to provide a universal service to the people of the country.”

But in their officially sanctioned briefings to journalists, BBC officials are trying to heal the apparent rifts.

“John Whittingdale is someone who understands broadcasting and media and is essentially supportive of the BBC,” a senior BBC source told RadioTimes.com.

And director general Tony Hall is putting a brave face on it, emailing all BBC staff late last night with a congratulatory note for the organisation’s Bafta successes but with a message for the new culture secretary.

In his note he says that he “looks forward to working with the new secretary of state” and intends to publish his own proposals over the next few months on how the BBC could “flourish in the internet age as we look forward to our centenary”.

But the reality is that the appointment of Whittingdale is clearly designed to show that the new government intends to be tough on the BBC in the upcoming charter negotiations.

Another broadcaster that probably has cause to be cautious is Channel 4.

Many inside the Tory party are keen to privatise C4, which is a statutory body set up in a highly unusual way – ad funded, public service-oriented, with all its profits going back into programming. A sell off would net the Treasury a hefty sum.

In fact, in 2001 the Tory party included a pledge to privatise C4 in its manifesto, something it was unable to do because it lost the election to Tony Blair’s Labour Party.

“We will privatise Channel 4 and give the money to cultural institutions like museums and galleries so they are more independent of the state,” the party promised.

Even prior to that a certain MP had tabled an unsuccessful amendment to the 1996 broadcasting bill seeking to privatise the broadcaster.

And the name of the MP?

None other than John Whittingdale.

Channel 4 – and the BBC – will be hoping he has mellowed since.

READ MORE

I fear for the future of the BBC if the Conservatives win the next election says Russell T Davies

The licence fee must be increased says outgoing BBC drama boss Ben Stephenson

Wolf Hall producer: “Freezing the licence fee would be death by attrition” for the BBC

Senior Tory MP: TV licence fee is less fair than poll tax

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