London: Britain announced a major overhaul of public service broadcaster British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) amid fears that the government was threatening the independence of the 94-year-old institution.
The changes unveiled in a new white paper presented in the House of Commons by UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale include plans to trial a subscription-base model over the years as well as have more differentiated programming aimed at specific audiences, including ethnic minorities.
The minister told MPs that the government is “emphatically not saying the BBC should not be popular” but would introduce a new requirement to provide “distinctive content” rather than just pursue ratings.
“The BBC will operate in a more robust and more clearly defined governance and regulatory framework and it will be more transparent and accountable to the public it serves, who rely on the BBC to be the very best it can possibly be, so it can inform, educate and entertain for many years to come,” he said.
The white paper was released as the BBC’s charter comes up for renewal in December 2016, a process which has proved controversial with some fearful that the government would attempt to influence the running of the BBC.
“We will place a requirement to provide distinctive programmes and services at the heart of the BBC’s core mission. Commissioning editors should ask consistently of new programming: ‘Is this idea sufficiently innovative and high quality?’ rather than simply ‘How will it do in the ratings?’,” Whittingdale said.
Some of the new measures include a new mission statement for the BBC: “To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high-quality, and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain.”
Going forward, a new unitary board will govern the corporation, replacing the current BBC Trust. The BBC will have the ability to appoint the majority of its board, independent of government, and editorial decisions will be explicitly the responsibility of the director-general. However, BBC director-general Tony 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.”
But overall, Hall welcomed the white paper: “It delivers a mandate for the strong, creative BBC the public believe in. A BBC that will be good for the creative industries – and most importantly of all, for Britain.”
UK’s media regulator, Ofcom, will be given the power to regulate BBC services and employees and freelancers who earn more than 450,000 pounds will have their salaries published.
The licence fee, paid by UK taxpayers towards the running of the BBC, will continue for at least 11 years and viewers will also need to pay it to use BBC’s online service iPlayer.
However, a subscription-based model will also be trialled alongside.
“The government is clear that this would be for additional services only. Licence fee payers will not be asked to pay for ‘top-up’ services for anything they currently get,” the white paper said.
The changes mark the first such significant exercise in the BBC’s 94-year history. The white paper will now be debated by MPs in the Autumn Parliament session before a new charter is drafted and signed for the next 11 years later this year.