The Government’s review of the BBC is a constitutional issue, at least as important as it’s the Scotland Bill, EU referendum and devolution of powers to city regions. The BBC is as much part of our constitution as Parliament, local councils and the courts. It is not simply another media provider, responding to consumer demand.
The core of its constitutional role are six public purposes set out at the last Charter Review in 2006:
- Sustaining citizenship and civil society
- Promoting education and learning
- Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence
- Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities
- Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK
- Delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services.
These public purpose would be threatened if any government exerted direct control over the BBC; if its independence were compromised by any political, commercial or factional interest; if it was forced to become a commercial entity, competing for advertisers, listeners, viewers and subscriptions; or
Renew and strengthen BBC independence
The BBC review is an opportunity to revisit and revise the BBC’s charter, and also to ensure that its independence is securely entrenched in our constitution.
The Government has set out some challenging questions in the review in four areas:
- BBC’s mission, purpose and values
- Scale and scope of the BBC’s services and operations
- The way in which the BBC is funded
- BBC’s governance and accountability
These deserve to be discussed in depth. The consultation paper and online response form is available here. The consultation will last for 12 weeks, from 16 July to 8 October 2015. Following the review the Government will publish proposals in Spring 2016.
Three ways of strengthening the review process and the BBC are :
- To create “people’s panels” to discuss and respond to the debate, through schools, adult education, colleges, book shops, arts clubs, sports centres and civil society bodies of all kinds
- To add a 7th principle to “strengthen people’s voices”, discussed below
- To entrench the constitutional independence of the BBC in a Charter which cannot be changed except by a referendum and 60% majority in each Parliament and Assembly of the UK.
The BBC is a vital part of the pluralism and diversity of this country, as well as the commitment to an impartial, fearless, investigative media. These values can be threatened by both political and commercial interests (although the BBC also benefits from having independent competition from commercial media). Protecting the BBC as part of our constitution is one way to secure these values in future.
The BBC Trust has been told to “deliver a transparent, open and democratic Charter Review process”. For current position see BBC strategy, policies and guidelines, and reports. I hope it will encourage and support independent “people’s panels” and other ways to deepen the debate throughout the consultation and Charter renewal process.
Top-down insider advisory panel
The Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale MP, has appointed a group of experts for the Charter Review process including:
- Dawn Airey, former head of Channel 5 who has previously called for the licence fee to be cut and charging for the BBC website;
- Colette Bowe, former chair of Ofcom
- Andrew Fisher, executive chairman of Shazam
- Darren Henley, head of the Arts Council England
- Ashley Highfield, chief executive of Johnston Press
- Alex Mahon, former chief executive of Shine Group
- Lopa Patel, digital entrepreneur
- Stewart Purvis, a former editor-in-chief of ITN and journalism professor
These are all media insiders, if not entirely establishment figures.
Twenty nine stars the in arts and entertainment have called on the Prime Minister to protect the BBC from cuts to its service (the full text is on the Daily Telegraph’s website). Their support is welcome, but we also need to hear from a wider cross-section of the public.
Strengthen people’s voices
The biggest challenge for the consultation and the BBC as a public service broadcaster is to give citizens’ a stronger voice in society. The BBC does a good job in covering politics, questioning politicians and investigating issues, particularly during elections and on Radio 4. It needs to find ways of widening debate between elections, and actively engaging people in the issues facing this country.
I therefore suggest a new principle to strengthen the BBC’s six public purpose objectives, particularly the first four on sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; and representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities. The principle I propose is:
7 Strengthen people’s voices: enable the widest possible diversity of people in the UK to have a voice through the BBC and supply content across all genres, and enable people to develop the skills and capacity to do so
This objective complements existing principles, particularly three, “Using a wide range and diversity of supply across all genres and from across the UK” and four, “Securing a sustainable production supply in terms of skills and capacity”.
This new principle is needed to enable all sections of the community to have experience of creating and producing high quality content on national broadcast platforms. The current inequality of opportunity and outcomes in education means that most the public are unable to enter a highly competitive media market which, by its nature, advantages those who have had opportunities to develop their abilities and access the best education and training available.
This is also needed because if more people have access to the media and are confident about using it, then scandals about sexual abuse, mistreatment in care homes and hospitals, or the cover up at Hillsborough, would be exposed sooner. If people see and experience the BBC as “our broadcaster” in which they take part as well as consume, then it will fulfil its role of sustaining citizenship, promoting learning and stimulating creativity across all nations, regions and communities of the UK.
Creating a media-literate democracy
“Content supply” is not just about delivering excellent content. It is also about fostering a society in which everyone creates and shares knowledge – about hair, fashion, recipes or how to look after pets as well as business innovation and politics. Content creation and communication are now a vital part of how our society and economy work. So far the private sector, through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Huffington Post, etc., has been better at offering people new platforms and opportunities to create and share content.
As a public sector platform, the BBC could play a significant role in giving under-represented groups and the wider public greater access to broadcast media, as contributors and creators, and in helping people to aggregate, understand and take part in their national conversation. The BBC could both grow the talent pool and improve our national conversations.
To do this the BBC should fund initiatives to increase access to opportunities for content creation, particularly in areas of greater deprivation and lower educational achievement, so that even the most marginalised people can develop skills, confidence and capacity to provide content.
What this means in practice takes many forms, some of which the BBC already does. It includes:
- Community media champions to reach out to schools, colleges and communities, particularly among deprived areas and minority communities, to involve more people in making content for the web, radio and television;
- Offering training and support to schools, colleges and community media in disadvantaged areas to develop content and build capacity to become a content provider, including both business and technical skills;
- Working with charities and service providers for people who are homeless, escaping domestic violence, refugees or dealing with other difficulties, so that they can have a voice and learn how to use the media;
- Creating more traineeships and apprenticeships for people to enter broadcasting and other media professions from disadvantaged areas;
- Creating more diverse platforms for people to report on local community issues, local politics, the impact of national or international affairs on their area, and niche interests;
- Actively engaging people more deeply in citizenship issues, such as local and national elections; public service delivery; climate change and carbon reduction; immigration; the EU debate; the transatlantic trade negotiations; the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the provision of playing facilities for sports and anything else that concerns citizens.
The Director General’s ‘Compete or Compare’ speech illustrates both the problem and the opportunity: it was delivered at one of our elite universities, his reference points were the greatest cultural bodies of this country, and his focus was the small number of super-producers now dominating supply. But his talk started with the modest roots of Hollywood and the contribution of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who “made a success as pioneers because they had liberty and a fierce desire to succeed.” They also came with a commitment to learning, skills and knowledge. In many parts of our country people do not feel they have the liberty and opportunity to succeed, nor education that inspires and equips them to transform their situation.
A 7th principle, to strengthen people’s voices would help create the liberty and opportunity for more people to have a voice. It would also enable more people to become independent producers, fostering the next generation of talent in a global industry of immense importance. This principle can be applied both in-house and by external suppliers, including community media and voluntary organisations.
BBC as a forum for the nation
The BBC is a forum for the nation, through which people can share their hopes, fears and visions of the future. It can help people take part in politics at all levels, as well as sharing talents to entertain, so that public participation in politics and public affairs becomes as easy and as widespread as participation in sport. The consultation paper and online response form is available here until 8 October 2015.
The review is an opportunity to renew, strengthen and protect the BBC as part of our constitution.