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Andrew Tettenborn: Sharon White’s mad new BBC rulebook makes the Tower of Babel look united


Benito Mussolini’s passion for micro-management was such, so urban legend goes, that he at one point decreed that every ruined building in Pompeii had to have a house number allocated. The BBC now seems destined for something similar, courtesy of new regulator Ofcom. Just over three weeks ago, TCW ran a piece on the future envisaged for Auntie in a speech in Oxford by oh-so-new-establishment Sharon White, the CEO of Ofcom (ex-mandarin at the No 10 policy unit under Tony Blair, later senior functionary at the Department for International Development, and married to impeccably leftish OBR chairman Robert Chote). That speech promised a brave new world of virtue-signalling, quotas and programme content that’s deemed good for us whether we want it or not.

This is a promise that has now, unfortunately, been kept only too faithfully. On 29 March Ofcom published a ‘consultation’, Holding the BBC to account for the delivery of its mission and public purposes, which was rolled out the same day by Ms White with a flourish at the Nations and Regions Media Conference in trendy Salford to a predictable collection of politicians, luvvies and modish media types (conference theme: Working Futures: Our Brilliant Careers – I’m not joking).

This document is, if anything, beyond parody. It is a draft rulebook from Ofcom dictating almost everything the BBC does, written in inimitably pompous legalese (indeed, it includes three pages of definitions). Rulebook means rulebook, too: breach of any requirement carries a fine of up to £250,000 – over 1,500 licence fees – payable by the BBC to Ofcom.

And there are requirements in spades. How much news? Annual quotas (1520 hours a year for BBC1). When? Radio 3 must have regular bulletins throughout the day (pity if you’d have preferred the music, but rules are rules). What sort of music must there be on Radio 1? Quotas: 50 per cent New Music and 60 hours of Specialist Music. Where must programmes be made? Quotas: at least 50 per cent outside the M25, 8 per cent in Scotland, 5 per cent in Wales and 8 per cent in Northern Ireland.

Money spent? You guessed: geographical quotas. Languages: a guaranteed 240 hours each in Northern Ireland for Irish and, if you please, Ulster Scots (number of speakers of Ulster Scots as a first language: negligible). Content? This must “have regard to the range of the diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom”, including “age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion and belief, sex, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background”.

Audience satisfaction must be checked regularly with approved focus groups on how the BBC represents, portrays and serves diverse audiences, and “raises awareness of different cultures and viewpoints.” More chillingly, “the BBC must establish and comply with a code of practice, approved by Ofcom, setting out the steps the BBC will take when commissioning content across all genres to ensure that such content accurately represents, authentically portrays and reflects the diverse communities of the whole of the United Kingdom.” And so on.

All this is, of course, appallingly patronising in the way that only the prosperous Left can be. (Black people to be regarded as a separate community and provided with programming suitable for their special needs? Haven’t we heard that somewhere before? And why should disabled people have any tastes different from the rest of us? – perhaps someone from Ofcom can tell us).

But it’s worse than that. Put shortly, the BBC board and the multifarious layers of management under them who control the programming are to be morphed into a race of highly-paid metropolitan meeting-goers and box-tickers, and our national broadcaster is to become not so much a public service as an official apportioner of favours cum job-creation scheme, carefully-monitored to make sure no-one gets any more advantage than they are strictly entitled to.

Programming will be angled not to inspire, but to avoid offence – especially to pressure-groups, from whom Ofcom is always happy to hear – and get the numbers right. Imagine the conversation in Broadcasting House: “Yes, I know as well as you do that these programme-makers in Wolverhampton are useless, but we’re below quota outside the M25, so we’ll have to use them. By the way, Ofcom have just been on the phone: the Gender Trust have been complaining that there’s nothing for them in the Archers. Any idea where we can find a programme about ordinary transgender folk for peak-time Radio 4 next week?”.

This is theoretically still a consultation. Indeed, you are cordially invited in this document to write to Ofcom’s contact person (sorry, “consultation champion”) before July 17, saying what you think of this hogwash. Feel free: but don’t hold your breath.


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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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