He is viewed by many as the enemy of the BBC, an arch free-marketer determined to see the Corporation cut down to size as he oversees the current charter renewal process.
But today’s Edinburgh Television Festival saw a different side to culture secretary John Whittingdale in his address to the industry.
During an hour-long question and answer session he stressed what an admirer he was of the BBC and of the reputational value it gave to Britain.
He said that the Government had been “unfairly criticised” for the way it has handled charter negotiations and for the harsh licence fee settlement it is said to be preparing for the Corporation. This includes the Government’s pledge to make the BBC pay for the licence fee for over 75s – a move which could cost it an estimated £650m or more.
“It was never our intention to give the impression that the BBC was under attack,” said Whittingdale.
He also dismissed recent comments by BBC director-general Lord Hall that some within Government want the BBC to abandon entertainment shows entirely as “nonsense”, adding: “It is extraordinary… people saying they would be happy if the BBC didn’t exist. I would be unhappy if the BBC didn’t exist.”
Whittingdale said that remarks he had made before he became culture secretary in which he questioned whether the BBC should make populist shows such as Strictly Come Dancing or The Voice were misconstrued.
He said that he had “personal views… of course I do” but added that “it is not the job of secretary of state to tell the BBC what programmes they should and should not be making”.
“The BBC is always going to broadcast things that the Government doesn’t like but the BBC’s editorial independence is paramount,” he added.
However Whittingdale went on to say that it was “an interesting question” whether a publicly funded broadcaster like the BBC should have been bidding against a commercial broadcaster such as ITV for the rights to license popular shows such as The Voice (which the BBC eventually won).
Whittingdale also declined to rule out possible privatisation of Channel 4 – which is publicly owned – but said it was not currently on the agenda.
“The ownership of Channel 4 is not currently under debate. Do I think there are no circumstances where we would consider it? No.”
Whittingdale’s address was welcomed by BBC director of television Danny Cohen who told delegates afterwards: “There was a lot he said today that was encouraging – he said that BBC programming is second to none and is good value for money. We’ll bank all of those [comments].”
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