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David Keighley: Cameron won’t shake up the BBC while he needs its help to win the Europe vote


Is the Government planning radical reform of the BBC? Don’t hold your breath.

Despite a bit of high-profile sabre-rattling, and intensifying speculation in the press based on ‘government leaks’ that this is on the cards, the answer is probably a huge resounding ‘no’.

Figures close to new culture secretary John Whittingdale have clearly been the source of the recent rumours about reform.  It has now emerged that a green paper on the subject is due within the next few weeks.

Sounds good, but dig deeper and all that is on the agenda, it seems, is a bit of tinkering: minor reform of and continued pegging (not abolition) of the licence fee, together with privatisation of BBC Worldwide and of some production facilities.

Also mooted is the scrapping after only eight years of the useless BBC Trustees. Even Sir Michael Lyons, the Labour- supporting former BBC chairman, now wants shot of them.

The end result of this limited fudge?  The BBC will soldier on a bit bruised – and maybe slightly slimmer and smaller – but essentially the same: an arrogant, corpulent and reactionary presence at the heart of a media landscape that is otherwise fizzing with ideas that could energise our culture and our democracy.

If this really is the scale of the Conservative vision for the reform of public service broadcasting, it’s deeply depressing.

Point One: Nothing short of complete abolition of the current licence fee and a change to subscription funding will alter the outlook of the Corporation and cease the flow of propaganda.   They need to be subject to the disciplines of the marketplace.

Point two: Abolishing the BBC Trustees and handing regulation to Ofcom – the route apparently also favoured by George Osborne, who declared his support back in March – won’t change a thing. Key figures on the Ofcom board, the chairman (Dame Patricia Hodgson, who spent thirty years at the BBC before being forced to jump ship by Greg Dyke in 2000) and the man in charge of content regulation (Tim Gardam) are both BBC veterans who spent decades at the Corporation before acquiring their current cushy posts.  They will staunchly defend the lefty propaganda emanating from the BBC in exactly the same way the Trustees do because they are wilfully blind to it.

What is needed instead is genuinely independent, robust regulation that forces the BBC to be properly independent in its outlook, and to make sure that every penny of spending is properly focused on generating creativity and content that is in tune with British culture, audience tastes and interests.

Point three: Privatising BBC facilities won’t dilute the massive stultifying influence the Corporation exerts over the UK’s media scene. What is needed is genuine competition so that creativity can flourish. A lion’s share of the money that the public have for television entertainment goes directly and automatically to the BBC coffers; until this changes, innovation from independent players in the business is stifled. For its part, the BBC remains a massive feudal-style dispenser of cash and patronage.

The only conclusion to draw from this half-hearted menu is that in reality, the Government does not want real reform. The renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter due in 2017 is a once-in a-decade opportunity, but what’s apparently so far on the drawing board is only a pathetic fudge that will, in effect, maintain the status quo for yet another ten years.

Why? Well David Cameron and George Osborne desperately want a ‘yes’ vote in the forthcoming referendum. So why would they plan to hobble the best propaganda channel they have?

Research by News-watch indicates that their relentless deluge of pro-EU sentiment – and patronising denigration of anyone who puts an alternative view – continued unabated during the General Election. With Cameron’s attempts at renegotiation hitting the buffers this week, he will be praying for all the help he can get – especially from the experts, the BBC.

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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