Independence and impartiality
The BBC exploits the ambiguity of its position, claiming independence or public status as it pleases to its own benefit; its attitude toward the licence fee is an example of this. Whether or not any other aspects of our reform proposals are accepted, what is necessary is a clear statement that the public sector broadcaster is an executive agency of H.M. Government whose employees should observe the standards usual across the Civil Service with particular reference to the relationship with H.M. Government and any particular administration. At present 'impartiality' is interpreted in terms of independence from H.M. Government, manifested in displays of antagonism towards the administration of the day whichever Party might be in office, but impartiality is readily understood across the Civil Service. This redefinition is necessary if the work of the public sector broadcaster is to be integrated with that of other agencies and Government Departments.
The status of the public sector broadcaster should be reflected in its governance structures. There should be a management board answerable to a board of governors who should be civil servants drawn from relevant Departments. The public sector broadcaster should be accountable to both H.M. Government and Parliament in precisely the same manner as any other public office or agency.
Terms of the next Royal Charter
The media landscape has been transformed by technological advances over the course of the last decade so there could be no possible justification for the grant of a Royal Charter that would be almost certain to leave the BBC several years behind the times when it expires.
If, at the Mid-term Review, the Secretary of State indicates an intention to replace the current service with one more appropriate to modern conditions, the present Royal Charter might be succeeded by another for a two year term, followed by others for one or two year terms as necessary. If no indication is given at the Mid-Term Review, the next Royal Charter should be for a term of no more than four years again followed by successive shorter terms. This will allow the necessary reforms to be implemented without undue delay as and when they become pressing.
An Alternative in Clear Vision
The BBC achieved incorporation by making essentially fraudulent claims, and retained its status by deceit, scaremongering and self-serving propaganda campaigns. It has now become so much an established part of national life that abolition is considered unthinkable, yet a phased abolition is clearly desirable to attain the balanced media landscape necessary in the 21st century.
We set out below a set of alternative proposals for public sector broadcasting with public purposes of broadcasting in support of public policy, and acting as an organ of accountability by making the work of Parliament and H.M. Government visible to the general public.
Our proposals are as follows:
✗ A Royal Charter of no more than four years, extended by one or two years at a time should be granted to achieve a smooth transition within twelve years. Because it is dependent upon the Royal Charter, the BBC is legally incompetent to contract for goods, staff or services beyond the Charter term; but it might well have done so, and a short Charter will enable possible litigation to be avoided as any such contracts would come to light and most would be able to run their course within the transition period, redundancy payments may also be avoided.
✗ BBC News and Sport, with which news reporting has close connections, should be privatised as a single company. Retention of the news service within the public sector makes it difficult for audiences overseas to regard the BBC News as anything other than the opinion of H.M. Government; it also contributes to the confusion between independence and impartiality that has sometimes led the BBC to see its rôle as being to oppose whichever administration happens to be in office. The DDCMS might find it desirable to have a certain amount of sport broadcast in the public sector when the nature of the sport in question, or the level at which it is played, make the competitions at issue unattractive to commercial broadcasters.
✗ Responsibility for and management of the BBC Monitoring unit should pass to the FCO.
✗ All properties held by the BBC should be transferred to a new agency operating under the auspices of the DCLG's Local Government and Public Services Group. We would envisage most leases being allowed to lapse, or being passed to successor organisations in the private sector. It is likely that a privatised BBC News would wish to continue to occupy a large part of New Broadcasting House as a permanent tenant. Other properties owned by the BBC should be sold, leased to successor companies, or handed over for community or academic use. Movables should be sold unless desirable for display in museums. At some point, the new agency might have its work conducted by a private sector contractor, or else be privatised outright.
✗ There can be no justification for providing drama, light entertainment or the majority of factual and documentary programming within the public sector. It must be noted that there is no category of television programme in which the BBC has not been bested in the relevant industry awards, and even in radio where there is little competition, there is no qualitative difference between independent productions and those made in house; there would, therefore, be no loss of breadth or quality by closing these BBC departments. There might be some justification for the public sector broadcaster's commissioning programmes about the public sector; but they would have to be produced independently, and even then there would still be a significant danger of their degeneration into propaganda in support of maintaining the status quo.
✗ Intellectual property and income from archives should be used to provide an income stream for the Arts Council. It is likely that popular series, serials and formats would continue to be produced under licence agreements, and that existing recordings would continue to be broadcast both in the UK and abroad.
✗ The impartiality required of the public sector broadcaster should be that of other public bodies and of the Civil Service; it should support the broad objectives of HM Government e.g. to promote British exports and invisibles. The extent to which it should support specific policies is more contentious; we recommend that it should not promote Government policy, but should act in support of it – a distinction readily understood across the Civil Service.
✗ The principal purpose of the public sector broadcaster should be to serve as an organ of accountability enabling the general public to see and hear what is done on their behalf with their taxes. If this option is taken, the service should be paid for from general taxation without additional charge. We would envisage two services: one to broadcast (over several television and radio networks) on the work subsidised by the Arts Council; the other to broadcast parliamentary proceedings, public information films and, perhaps, documentaries about public services or other publicly funded activities (as noted above, any such programmes should be commissioned from independent companies) as required by H.M. Government.
✗ The Arts Council should be expanded by the addition of a new section to handle the work currently performed by the BBC in identifying, developing and promoting talent in popular genres of music; it should also take on the BBC orchestras and the whole or partial sponsorship of music or literary festivals where that is desirable. On the other hand, broadcasting readily available and well publicised recordings produced by large companies amounts to free advertising and is not a suitable activity for a public sector broadcaster but should be left to commercial broadcasters. We would envisage an arts and culture broadcasting service administered by the Arts Council, with content – plays, concerts, readings etc. - from those in receipt of subsidies, but also broadcasting on items and properties 'given to the nation' in lieu of taxes, and on museum or gallery collections, archives, libraries and any other aspect of our national heritage or the creative industries in which public money is invested.
✗ We would envisage a World Service administered by the British Council with the advice of the Commonwealth Institute. The content would be drawn principally from the arts and culture service described above. In addition, the World Service would maintain the language services, which would continue to produce educational and edifying drama; however, as all journalists would be transferred to the privatised news service, they would translate news for broadcast rather than originating news content. The World Service would contract for the provision of an impartial news service from a British provider i.e. BBC News, ITN or Sky News, all of which are generally regarded as equivalent in quality and impartiality. Funding should come from a combination of Government grants (mainly from DfID with smaller amounts from the FCO and DBEIS) and advertising.
✗ There is a crisis in plurality in the radio market with particular respect to news and other non-music broadcasting. The abolition of the BBC should ensure that content providers are available for documentaries, light entertainment and drama made for broadcast if broadcasters find sufficient audiences to make these economically viable. Restrictions as to the nature of broadcasting licences should be reduced to a significant extent with particular reference to cross-media ownership and religious broadcasters. Other efforts should also be made to draw new entrants into the market. Consideration might be given to allowing news broadcasting to be accurate but not impartial with explicitly editorial material interleaved amongst journalistic reports if that would persuade newspaper publishers to be amongst those new entrants.
✗ A schools/homeschooling and universities service broadcasting via the internet is clearly desirable, but it is uncertain whether any public sector involvement would be necessary. It is likely that the World Service would wish to broadcast material supplied by such a service.
✗ It is likely that broadcasting in the indigenous minority languages will have to continue to be funded publicly, although it might well be commissioned from independent companies. We would recommend that responsibility for funding these services should be remitted to the devolved administrations with the exception of Cornish language broadcasting, decisions regarding which should be taken by the DDCMS in consultation with the DCHLG and local authorities in the Duchy. In all cases, news content should not be provided by the public sector. We recommend that where a decision to subsidise is made, the subsidy should be payable to any broadcaster capable of providing audited listening or viewing figures, and should generally be paid on a basis proportionate to the size of that audience. We would envisage Cornish, Irish, Ulster Scots and Scots programmes appearing alongside English programmes, with separate Welsh and Gaelic services as at present. All such services should strive to attract advertising (as S4C already does) both as a source of revenue and to normalise use of these languages. Abolition of the BBC would increase opportunities at the local, regional and national levels as well as on a UK-wide basis, and that should favour a growth in the availability of IML programming when required.
✗ In commissioning programmes for broadcast at home or abroad the Arts Council and British Council should have a duty not simply to 'support' indigenous minority languages, as the BBC has (BBC Charter 14(5)), but to promote their use. In fulfilling this obligation they will be advised by the relevant ministers in the devolved legislatures or their nominees and those nominated by the DCLG in consultation with local authorities in the Duchy of Cornwall to ensure that adequate provision is made. The British Council-administered international service should ensure that diaspora communities are assisted in learning their ancestral languages, and receive regular, varied and interesting broadcasts in those languages to strengthen their cultural identity and forge links with their forebears' historic homes. Examples might include Welsh broadcasts to Argentina, Cornish broadcasts to Australia, and Scots, Ulster Scots and Irish broadcasts to North America. IML broadcasting on the Arts Council-administered service would be in addition to any programmes directly commissioned for broadcast elsewhere and would consist of theatre pieces, popular and classical music and readings from the publications of subsidised presses. Cornwall clearly requires a regional Arts Council separate from that covering the South West of England if administrative matters relating to its language and culture are to be handled efficiently, knowledgeably and sensitively.
✗ Under the Belfast Agreement H.M. Government is obliged to guarantee subsidised broadcasting in the Irish language, but there is no obligation to do so via a public sector broadcaster rather than through an open offer to any broadcaster for general interest programming or a tendering process for specific commissions. Irish language broadcasting subsidised by United Kingdom taxpayers should concentrate largely on matters concerning the United Kingdom.Authority for media regulation should be a devolved matter in Scotland and Wales, and treated as a devolved matter in Northern Ireland although treaty obligations noted above preclude complete devolution. When H.M. Government or one of the devolved administrations decides to sponsor or subsidise programming of a particular type or on specific subjects any broadcaster should be eligible to receive the payment. Examples might include programmes featuring the application of new legislation; or, as detailed above, programming in one of the indigenous minority languages. In each case the administration responsible should specify whether the payment is to be made irrespective of audience figures, or whether it should be related to independently audited viewing/listening figures. In the former case there must always be at least some minimum audience figure, even if it is very small indeed, rather than having a payment made absolutely irrespective of viewer or listener numbers. Where there is to be a single contract it should be subject to competitive tendering with considerations of quality as well as cost and social factors.
By Prayer Crusader St Philip Howard