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The future of the BBC on White Paper

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United Kingdom

A Government White Paper has resulted in a raft of new proposals and amendments to the BBC Charter.

Most fundamentally, the Government plan to change the mission statement of the BBC. The previous wording that the BBC must 'inform, educate and entertain' has survived 93 years, two world wars and numerous cabinet reshuffles, but  is now being supplemented with the requirement that the BBC 'act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality and distinctive content and services that inform, educate and entertain.' The advocate for these changes, and leader of the White Paper on the future of the BBC, is culture secretary John Whittingdale.

The emphasis on the public interest element can be seen throughout the numerous proposals. For example, the proposed new charter would require the BBC to publish a list identifying all employees and contractors whose earnings exceed the threshold of £450,000 per year. The format of this list will include categories of earnings which each person falls into, in what Whittingdale calls "broad bands" of income. This is aimed at increasing transparency as to how the licence fee is spent.

Another measure which may contribute to transparency is a requirement that the BBC publishes details of its own internal assessment of viewer responses (known as the 'Appreciation Index'). The reasoning behind this is so that the public and the regulator can assess how well the BBC is serving its audiences.

In addition, Ofcom will be given the power to regulate the BBC. This implements the recommendations originally made by Sir David Clementi following his independent review of the BBC and is the first time the BBC have been externally regulated. Under the proposed new charter, Ofcom will have the power to consider complaints about BBC content and investigate the services they provide. They will also "have an important role in assessing the board’s performance in delivering a more distinctive BBC".

In terms of other changes to the governance of the BBC, according to the proposals the BBC Trust should be abolished and replaced with a new 'Unitary Board'. This would be headed up by the existing BBC Trust Chair, Rona Fairhead. The process for appointing members of the Unitary Board is still a contentious issue, with BBC director general Tony Hall saying: "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."

The White Paper also proposes that the National Audit Office carry out regular financial audits on the BBC. A statement issued by the BBC explained that "any further expansion of [the National Audit Office's] 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." Whether Whittingdale will take heed on this remains to be seen, but it is clear that it will be a point of heavy negotiation and, possibly, dispute.

As amended, the Charter also obliges the BBC to "carefully consider any potential undue negative impacts of its scheduling decisions" but it stops short of prescribing any scheduling requirements as was feared, in relation to scheduling big shows against rival shows on competitor channels. The proposed Charter states that 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" however the expectation is that the BBC will act in the best interests of viewers and take the scheduling of other channels into account when deciding when to show certain programmes.

Further, the proposals include a £20 million fund to be made available to commercial companies making programmes for children or black or ethnic minorities, extending the length of the Charter by one year but with a break halfway through to act as a 'health check' and a requirement that the BBC make its content portable so that licence fee payers can access BBC content whilst abroad.