For the BBC’s 93-year-history it has operated under the mission statement formulated by its founding father Lord Reith to “inform, educate and entertain”.
However the current Conservative Government thinks that is not enough and has imposed a new mission statement on the Corporation.
Now the BBC has been told that it must “act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality and distinctive content and services that inform, educate and entertain”.
The changes to the key wording of the mission statement was one of a raft of proposals put forward by culture secretary John Whittingdale in the White Paper on the future of the BBC.
Many of the proposals have been leaked in advance – a point for which he was criticised by shadow culture secretary Maria Eagle who called the leaks “deplorable”.
However it appears Whittingdale has been forced to row back on some of the suggested changes which had been reported before his announcement.
The much-feared top slicing proposals have been whittled down. The BBC had lobbied against suggestions that large chunks of the licence fee be made available to commercial producers. The White Paper calls for a “contestable fund” of £20m to be set up with licence fee money to be made available for commercial companies making programmes for children or black and ethnic minority audiences.
As expected, Whittingdale said that the new charter will require the BBC to publish the names of all staff and freelancers earning more than £450,000, the current director general’s salary, in what he called “broad bands”.
However its stops short of the feared requirement not to schedule big shows like Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake Off against rival shows on competitor channels like ITV.
The White Paper merely order the BBC to “carefully consider any potential undue negative impacts of its scheduling decisions” but makes no specific demands.
It says: “The government is clear that it cannot and indeed should not determine either the content or scheduling of programmes. And schedule clashes are clearly not the responsibility of one particular operator in the market. We expect the BBC board to consider the best interests of viewers – giving them a choice and variety of shows to watch, and carefully consider any potential undue negative impacts of its scheduling decisions.”
In other changes:
* Whittingdale extended the length of the charter by a year meaning that it will now last for 11 years, but with a break clause meaning that it could be reviewed half way through.
* As expected he has also given Ofcom the power to engage in external regulation of the BBC for the first time.
* However the White Paper also calls for the BBC subject to financial auditing from the National Audit Office.
Under the current system the regulator can only assess the market impact of ‘significant’ new services. However the new Charter will provide Ofcom with powers to investigate any aspect of BBC services and to consider complaints about all BBC content, including accuracy and impartiality.
The White Paper calls for a “strengthening” of the BBC’s existing content requirements and says Ofcom will also “have an important role in assessing the board’s performance in delivering a more distinctive BBC”.
The BBC Trust will be abolished with Trust Chair Rona Fairhead taking charge of a new unitary board.
Another key proposal includes a demand that the BBC make its content “portable” meaning that licence fee payers can consume BBC content when they are abroad.
In other points, the White Paper appears to criticise the BBC for heavily promoting music festivals such as Glastonbury.
It said that “the BBC needs to be sensitive to the market impact of some of its partnerships. Its heavy promotion of certain large festivals, for example, can have negative impacts on smaller local and regional festivals.”
The White Paper also forces the BBC to publish details of its own internal assessment of viewer responses, the so-called Appreciation Index or AI figures where audience opinions is rated out of 100 for individual shows.
The document states: “The government will also require the BBC to publish its audience ‘Appreciation Index’ data that will allow the public and the regulator to assess how well it is serving its audiences.”
BBC director general Tony Hall said he welcomed many of the proposals but said that the Corporation had an issue over the involvement of the National Audit Office and over proposals on the way the new unitary board was appointed.
Hall said: “We have an honest disagreement with the Government on this. I do not believe that the appointments proposals for the new unitary board are yet right. We will continue to make the case to government. It is vital for the future of the BBC that its independence is fully preserved.”
A BBC statement also questioned the involvement of the National Audit Office [NAO].
It said: “The NAO is already able to conduct value-for-money studies, and any further expansion of their role must include an explicit exclusion for editorial decision-making; and nor is it appropriate for the NAO to assess the value for money of the BBC’s commercial subsidiaries, as they do not spend any public money.
“On governance, the White Paper means that for the first time the BBC will be externally regulated by Ofcom but with a unitary board. This is the most significant reform in the BBC’s history. We think that is the right thing to do. Our view of how the new board is appointed to run the BBC differs from that held in government.
“While there are many things we strongly back and endorse in the White Paper, the current proposals for the unitary board require further consideration. In terms of the process, we think the chairman and deputy chairman should be appointed by the Government through an independent public appointments process. After that, we want a board that is the right size, with the right balance of skills and the right talents, appointed in the right way.”
Rona Fairhead, Chairman of BBC Trust, said: “We recognise that the Government has moved, but we need to debate these issues to ensure the arrangements for the board achieve the correct balance of independence, public oversight and operational effectiveness. We believe there is more than enough time to get this right, and we will continue to discuss this with the Government.”