What is the White Paper on the BBC’s future and why does it matter for viewers?

Ben Dowell answers all the questions on the biggest issue to affect the Corporaton in a generation

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Green Papers… White Papers? Royal Charters? Scale and scope? Top-slicing?

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If you’re mired in confusion about what’s currently happening at the BBC – and are not sure exactly what all these words mean – then we are here to help.

The Government’s White Paper on the future of the BBC will be published on Thursday. So here’s our handy guide to what’s happening and what it means for you and the nation’s broadcaster.


First up, what is a Green Paper?

The Green Paper is the first draft of the White Paper. The White Paper is essentially the document that is put before Parliament but is preceded by a more preliminary Green Paper which was published last July. The documents essentially determine the BBC’s Royal Charter for the next ten years – what it can and must do and how it should do it.

The Green Paper was published by the Government and called for a fundamental review of the size of the BBC, what it does and the way it is funded and cast doubt on whether the BBC should continue to strive to be “all things to all people”. Launching the Green Paper in the House of Commons, culture secretary John Whittingdale described the current licence fee model as “regressive” and even suggested that the BBC could be ultimately funded by subscription, although not in the “short term”. This was subject to a public consultation to which Radio Times readers submitted their views. Among the responses, 84% of people who answered the particular question in the DCMS’s consultation said BBC should remain independent.

This has led to the White Paper which is being put before Parliament on Thursday by Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.

The BBC did not like the contents of the Green Paper, issuing a surprisingly blunt attack on the Government following its publication saying it would “appear to herald a much diminished, less popular BBC” and that this “would be bad for Britain and would not be the BBC that the public has known and loved for over 90 years.” Punchy words, and it has informed the debate, claims, counter-claims, spins and leaks ever since.


 So what is a White Paper?

The White Paper is the final proposal put forward by the Government. It is not a Bill as such, in that there isn’t a statutory need for Parliament to approve it in exactly the way it does legislation. The convention is for both Houses to debate the Charter – ten years ago there was an approval motion in the Commons on the Agreement once formal drafting was finalised.

The White Paper is supposedly shaped by the thinking and debate since the Green Paper plus the public consultation. This White Paper will set out the Government’s position on the BBC and form the basis for the Royal Charter, which sets the level of the licence fee and provides the constitutional basis of the BBC. The current Charter is due to expire at the end of 2016 and a replacement needs to be in place before then.


Why is it proving so controversial?

For lots of reasons. Firstly the BBC is said to be particularly angry with the proposed questioning of its scale, believing that these matters have been decided with the funding deal it struck last year. Under the agreement, the licence-fee will be linked to Consumer Price Index [CPI] inflation which should lessen the burden of paying for licence-fees for the over 75s. That is also subject to debate and there are questions about whether the BBC can afford to foot this bill, estimated at around £650m over the ten year charter period.

The public consultation was also controversial, not least because culture secretary John Whittingdale said that every submission from the public was read, before Radio Times proved that his officials could not have read the online submissions sent on a memory stick from readers because they had not asked for the password for the stick.


What is it expected to say?

This is the big question. Carefully timed leaks have suggested certain key proposals. But as shadow culture secretary Maria Eagle told me this week, these briefings are often attempts to test the water with more controversial areas – or as she put it “to see how far they can go”.

So far, it has been suggested that the White Paper will call for a clampdown on the BBC’s online operation. It may restrict popular stories on the BBC website that commercial providers cater for. Could this mean deleting all the online recipes on BBC sites? It may also delve into the controversial area of scheduling – something the Government has repeatedly said it can’t and won’t do. But there could be restrictions on the scheduling of popular programmes like Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake Off at times when broadcasters like ITV are trying to get big shows away. The BBC would regard this as an intrusion into their editorial independence.


What about the licence fee?

The BBC believes it has agreed its funding deal with the Government (see above), meaning that the £145.50 licence fee – which has been frozen since 2007 – will rise in line with inflation. The question is what is done with the money. Top slicing – or the moving of licence fee money to commercial broadcasters to help pay for public service programmes – has been a hot topic for more than a decade. The White Paper may seek to give some of the BBC’s £3.7bn licence fee revenue to rival broadcasters to make shows – with children’s shows a likely area. Children’s TV has long been regarded as an area where there has been “market failure” – ie. only 1% of kids shows are original UK commissions. Will Whittingdale seek to top slice the licence fee for children’s TV producers and say he is doing it to address market failure? That is something the BBC fears and with good reason.


And why the fuss about the salaries of top stars?

Another possible change includes the salaries of top stars like Graham Norton. Briefings have suggested that the BBC could be forced to make the salaries of on-screen talent earning more than £150,000 a year public. At the moment it publishes the salaries and expenses of its own executives but freelancers and on screen talent are exempt. The BBC fear that its entertainment programming will take a hit because top stars won’t want to have their business made public and all the scrutiny (and opprobrium) that goes with that. Some people think that it’s public money and we have a right to know…


What about the BBC Trust?

It is certain that the BBC’s regulator – the BBC Trust – will be abolished an a unitary board will take its place with beefed up powers. Briefings have suggested that the current chair of the BBC Trust Rona Fairhead will head the new board. But this has not been confirmed. This is likely, but it is not liable to be too controversial. Everybody agrees that the Trust needs reforming. But there are serious issues around who will be on the new board…


Why is the BBC so angry?

The BBC is especially worried about top slicing which it regards as an unwarranted assault on the universality of the licence fee. The licence fee pays for the BBC which is for everyone and it believes this principle is diluted if commercial companies get a share of BBC income. Also, it is especially anxious about the make up of the unitary board which it fears may be filled with Government “place-men” (and women) – i.e. people with a party political allegiance or agenda. This, they argue, would fatally compromise the BBC’s independence and its ability to scrutinise the powerful, especially Government. The BBC, some feel, would become more of a state broadcaster and less of a public service broadcaster. Which is what the BBC is about …isn’t it?


What does it mean for you?

You may notice lots of immediate changes when the new charter kicks in in 2017. It could mean that you may have to buy recipe books because the more than 11,000 BBC recipes could be deleted online. Travel information is another area. If you use the BBC’s website for travel information, you may have to find new sources for this information from commercial providers. Also the times of your favourite shows may change, meaning that you become more of an X Factor viewer rather than a Strictly one? Fancy Strictly on, say, a Thursday night? Would that work for you? Your licence fee is likely to rise but in line with inflation. The BBC is likely to be poorer – you may notice that on screen. You may not.


Where do we go from here?

Well, there is still lobbying to be done The BBC is working overtime to try and quash some of what it regards as the most punitive areas of the proposals. One insider told me it had 50 staff working full on (weekends included) on the charter (though the BBC deny this).

And of course the White Paper has to meet with the approval of MPs. Around 20 Tories in the Commons and Lords are ready to oppose the White Paper and attempt to force the Government into another U-turn following climbdowns on forced academisation and admitting child refugees from Europe.

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Also, a group of rebels Peers are threatening to “march” on the Government.  The group led by Tory Peer and former Cabinet Minister Lord Fowler have said they will also introduce a Bill to the House of Lords seeking to curb Government influence on the Corporation if the Government continues to politicise the process (as they see it). There is still a long way to go with this and it could get uglier still…