BBC White Paper: Government Unfreezes License Fee and Scraps BBC Trust

BBC Broadcasting House
Courtesy of Matt Cetti-Roberts/LNP/REX/Shutterstock

U.K. TV bizzers breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday when the government unveiled its long-awaited white paper for the BBC, which quashed many of the speculated fears concerning the future of the country’s main public-owned broadcaster.

While concerns surrounding license fee commitment and encroaching independence were allayed, the paper did reveal plans for a “major overhaul” of how the Beeb is run.

John Whittingdale, the government minister in charge of broadcasting, revealed that the new BBC Royal Charter would remain committed to the org’s independence and would end the seven-year license fee freeze, which was frozen in 2010 by the then newly-elected coalition government.

The white paper confirmed the license fee, which is currently set at £145.50 ($210.06) per year, will run for another 11 years and rise in line with inflation from 2017 to 2022, quashing speculation that it would be “top sliced” and shared with some of its commercial rivals. It also stated that it viewers will need to pay to use the BBC iPlayer catch-up services.

However, Whittingdale indicated that the future of the license fee needed to be explored and that there would be an intention to transition from this model and explore where additional revenue could be raised for the BBC at home and abroad.

Under the new charter, which will commence in 2017, the BBC will have the ability to appoint the majority of its board, independent from the government. This marks a first for the Beeb and a welcome feat in maintaining editorial independence. Editorial decisions, say the paper, will be explicitly for the responsibility of the director general.

The paper placed a strong requirement on the BBC to provide “distinctive” content and services and focus on underserved audiences, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

However, Whittingdale pointed out that reform was “vital” in terms of BBC governance and said that governance failures illustrated the need for a new unitary board, which will govern the corporation and replace the BBC Trust. Ofcom will be given the power to regulate all BBC services externally.

Additionally, the new charter will require more transparency on pay, indicating that managers earning more than £150,000 ($217,000) and top talent earning more than £450,000 ($651,574) will have their salaries published.

The new 11-year charter, which unspools in 2017, will be the third-longest in the BBC’s history, indicating a long-term commitment from the government to the BBC. This stint will also mean that the next negotiations will not coincide with the country’s elections, which are fixed to every five years.

“This white paper delivers a mandate for the strong, creative BBC the public believe in,” said BBC director general Tony Hall. “A BBC that will be good for the creative industries – and most importantly of all, for Britain.”

A government “green paper,” which was published last July, said the BBC’s future, size and activities would have to be closely reviewed. Since then an enormous amount of speculation ranging from license fee cuts, contestability of funds, threats to independence and prime-time scheduling demands, has been awash in media outlets and amongst industryites.

“From where we were last July, which was an extraordinarily bad financial settlement, we are looking at significant improvement,” says Claire Enders of Enders Analysis. “The main result here, which is really outstanding is that there is an 11-year commitment to the BBC and to the licence fee. That’s very positive. The other positive element is that there has been a recognition of the public consultation, which attracted 200,000 responses, representing millions of people.”

A number of high-profile figures have publicly stated their support for the importance of the Beeb’s independence. At the BAFTA TV awards on Sunday, Peter Kosminsky, the “Wolf Hall” director who picked up the award for Best Drama for the program said: “I think most people would agree that the BBC’s main job is to speak truth to power, to report to the British public without fear or favor. It’s a public broadcaster independent of government, not a state broadcaster. All of this is under threat right now.”

Comedian and “Late Late Show” presenter James Cordon told the Press Association that the BBC “is a fundamental cornerstone of everything Britain stands for. It is freedom of speech at its greatest.”

Although, says Enders, while the masses may be breathing a sigh of relief there is a “game of shadows” being played out by the government.

“There were many different elements in the Green Paper which fundamentally threw most of the core concepts of the BBC into the air: it’s mission, it’s scale and scope, it’s editorial sanctity,” she says. “But there is no hard and fast commitment. The leash is tight and there will be many ways in which the government can yank that leash periodically.”

She adds: “I think we can see clearly where the BBC is headed in the next five to six years but we know that the government can use that trigger.”