THE BLOG

In This Era Of Fake News, The Government Must Not Threaten The Trusted BBC's Independence And Ability To Deliver

08/02/2017 07:47 GMT | Updated 08/02/2017 07:47 GMT
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Against the odds, the BBC continues to occupy a unique and extraordinary place in Britain. Despite the breath-taking pace of technological advancement and the explosion of new formats and new channels, its programmes remain at the centre of shared national life. Its prestige and credibility as a news organisation around the world is unparalleled. Polls show that Brits trust the BBC more than twice as much as print media news sources. It is one of our greatest exports and the leading light of our world-beating creative industries.

In an era of anxiety about the proliferation of fake news, and the need to support British creative and commercial success internationally, protecting the best of the BBC and encouraging it to innovate and excel has never been more important. So it is of deep concern that recent months have seen growing anxiety that government policy is threatening both the independence of the BBC and its continuing ability to deliver core activities.

The licence fee is entering its seventh year of being frozen in cash terms. In the course of the new Charter renewal process in 2015, the government required the BBC to take over financial responsibility for TV licences for the over-75s (cost: £600million) without any extra resources.

The new Charter also scrapped the BBC Trust - the troubled body that governed the BBC. But initial government proposals for its replacement envisaged a majority of the new Unitary Board's members being appointed by the government itself. It took a parliamentary outcry at the serious threat this would pose to the BBC's independence to force Ministers into revised proposals for the Board's composition.

Nevertheless, the agenda of the Conservative government towards the BBC remains, to be charitable, unclear. What is badged as 'reform' and 'challenge' on examination reveals itself as hostility and threat. Theresa May's government has shown it is keen to continue her predecessor's intimate relationship with Murdoch's media empire (their executives still meet with ministers more than any other media organisation), whose hatred of the BBC remains undimmed.

The Digital Economy Bill, which concludes its Lords Committee stage today, is not primarily about the future of the BBC. But Labour believes our amendments can shore up some of its key activities in the face of both technological change and anxiety about protecting the BBC's governance, independence and finances.

First, we propose new rules to ensure that the public service broadcasting (PSB) output paid for by licence-payers remains prominent and accessible, however people access TV programmes. Existing rules require channels carrying PSB programmes to be at the top of programme guides. But these rules were written before the mushrooming of on-demand services, catch-up TV, iPads or connected TV.

Our amendment would ensure that whatever the platform, PSB content - such as Welsh and Gaelic language programming, or BBC children's shows - would be visible and easy to find, rather than buried behind programmes promoted by commercial broadcasters.

Second, we are challenging the government to ensure that rules guaranteeing major sporting events remain accessible to all on free-to-air TV, are still fit for purpose. Existing definitions of what counts as a channel that qualifies as sufficiently accessible are at serious risk of becoming obsolete. All at a time when the public remains extremely concerned that major sports coverage is being swallowed up by premium channels.

Third, Labour would like future licence fee negotiations to be removed of the suspicion of political interference, to ensure the public has confidence that the BBC is receiving the funding it needs to deliver its Charter functions. We are proposing an independent Licence Fee Commission to assess what the financial settlement for the BBC should be, once the Charter is in place. The Secretary of State would have a duty to consult with the public on the Commission's recommendation - and if disagreeing with the final recommendation, would have to account publicly for the decision.

This reform would protect both the BBC and the government from politicisation of the licence fee settlement process, and reassure the public that the activities it expects from the BBC are properly funded.

The BBC is entering a new world of new regulation, new governance and new responsibilities. Labour believes we have a duty to ensure that adapting to this new world does not come at the expense of activities that the public still wants and needs from the BBC. Failure to be vigilant could come at a heavy price for an institution that enriches the lives of us all.

Lord Wood of Anfield is a Labour Peer, and former senior adviser to Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown