Top Peers threaten to march on Government in revolt about treatment of the BBC

Lords Fowler, Lester and Alli say they will try and bring forward legislation aimed to curb all Government power over the BBC if John Whittingdale goes ahead with punitive reforms of the Corporation

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A group of cross bench Peers have threatened to “march” on the Government if John Whittingdale proceeds with his expected punitive BBC proposals in this Thursday’s White Paper.

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The group led by Tory Peer and former Cabinet Minister Lord Fowler have said they will will also introduce a Bill to the House of Lords seeking to curb Government influence on the Corporation if the proposed changes to the way the BBC operates are contained in this week’s White Paper.

The Peers were speaking at an event in Westminster today attended by media experts and supported by celebrities including EastEnders actor Ross Kemp, Richard Wilson and June Sarpong.

Lord Fowler unveiled details of a draft Bill drawn up by Lib Dem Peer Lord Lester which will be put before the chamber if Whittingdale’s expected reforms are laid out in the White Paper, which is expected this Thursday.

The Lords’ draft Bill aims to put into statute the independence of the BBC from Government “in all matters concerning its output, the times and manner in which its output is supplied, and the governance and management of its affairs”.

“The BBC’s reputation rests on it being free of Government interference,” Lord Fowler said today.

Lord Lester said that the system where renegotiation of the licence fee occurs every ten years has a “chilling effect on the BBC’s independence… particularly during elections” and also damaged its ability to engage in “long term financial planning”.

He drafted the proposed Bill which he said will be introduced if the Government does not guarantee the BBC’s editorial independence in its White Paper.

 “If the Government doesn’t [give way on these issues] then my goodness me not only will we back the bill then my goodness me…we will march,” said Lord Lester.

According to reported leaks from within the Department of Culture Media and Sport, Whittingdale’s White Paper will propose that the BBC take measures not to schedule big rating shows such as The Great British Bake Off against commercial opposition. It is also expected to propose that the BBC publish in full the details of its highest paid stars.

It has also been suggested that a portion of the licence fee be “top-sliced” to fund children’s programming on other commercial networks and would propose that the BBC’s operations are overseen by a new board with more powers than the current regulatory body, the BBC Trust.

Fowler told today’s event that the rumoured content of the White Paper raised “serious questions” about the BBC’s independence and the draft Bill to the Lords would seek to take questions about the BBC’s funding, scale and scope out of the political process for good.

Lord Fowler added that the proposed new regulatory board which the Government is expected to establish to replace the BBC Trust should not be filled with Government appointees but should be comprised of people appointed on merit.

Lord Alli, the Labour Peer and former boss of production company Planet 24, also attacked the “ludicrous” suggestion of giving BBC money to commercial children’s producers and said that the BBC’s haul at the Baftas demonstrated its capacity to provide unique and valuable programming.

Listing all Bafta wins for shows such as Wolf Hall, Doctor Foster and Strictly Comes Dancing he said: “What more do you want in terms of entertainment? Why do you want to take that away?”

He said that culture secretary John Whittingdale was ”ideologically opposed” to the BBC and believed that “private is better”.

A draft Bill can be introduced in the House of Lords and would be expected to be laid in the chamber two weeks after the White Paper Is published.

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It is then debated in a Second Reading in the Lords before it is able to stands a chance of getting enough MPs to see it put before the House of Commons. But to do so it would requite the support of the opposition parties and some Tory MPs.