Saturday 20 January 2018

Labour seeking assurances over future of Strictly and other BBC favourites

Maria Eagle urged Culture Secretary John Whittingdale to give assurances that Ofcom will not make the BBC stop making popular programmes off the back of the requirements
Maria Eagle urged Culture Secretary John Whittingdale to give assurances that Ofcom will not make the BBC stop making popular programmes off the back of the requirements

Strictly Come Dancing and other popular BBC programmes may still be at risk of being axed under Government plans to overhaul the corporation's governance, Labour has warned.

Shadow culture secretary Maria Eagle said prescriptive requirements in the BBC White Paper for charter renewal suggest that shows like Countryfile and Doctor Who may also be under threat.

The document's requirement for the BBC to be "distinctive" and suggestion that it could seek to rely on "fewer high output long-term titles" give the impression it may forced to drop programmes which go head to head with commercial rivals, Ms Eagle said.

She urged Culture Secretary John Whittingdale to give assurances that Ofcom will not make the BBC stop making popular programmes off the back of the requirements.

Opening an Opposition day debate on the White Paper, Ms Eagle said: "Page 32 of the White Paper defines distinctiveness as being 'a requirement that the BBC should be substantially different to other providers across each and every service' b ut that hardly really pins it down.

"Ministers must allay concerns that this could be interpreted as the BBC being forced to withdraw from anything its commercial rivals wish it wasn't doing for their own commercial gain.

"You have in the past questioned the distinctiveness of some of the BBC's most popular programmes, like Strictly Come Dancing.

"The White Paper says 'the Government is clear that it cannot and indeed should not determine either the content or scheduling of programmes'.

"But it also sets out prescriptive content requirements for radio and TV.

"To take one example for TV it demands on page 38 - 'fewer high output long-term titles'.

"So you seem to be telling the BBC to stop producing much loved shows like Countryfile or Casualty or Doctor Who that happen to have been produced for very many years.

"What reassurances can you give that you are not simply going to require Ofcom to make the BBC back off doing things you don't like on the basis of these extremely prescriptive requirements?"

Ms Eagle: "If the Secretary of State, who's a free marketeer by instinct, wishes to intervene by micro-managing the public sector elements of our broadcasting industry he is making a very big mistake as well as turning into a statist interfering minister who should just leave our broadcasters to get on with doing the job that they do so well.

"Particularly those who work in the BBC."

When the White Paper was published in May, Mr Whittingdale insisted the requirement to produce distinctive content is "emphatically not saying the BBC should not be popular".

Mr Whittingdale insisted the editorial independence of the BBC has been strengthened under the new charter proposals.

He said the new governance arrangements proposed are exactly as those recommended by Sir David Clementi's independent review.

He said: "Whereas previously all of the appointments of the governors of the BBC, and then following changes the BBC Trust, all of those appointments were previously made by the Government, a t least half of the new BBC board will be appointed by the BBC.

"The six positions which are Government appointees will be made through the public appointments process which itself wasn't in place before."

He added: "As well as putting in place a more independent board, we will also strengthen the independence of the director general as editor in chief. Editorial decisions will be a matter for him and the BBC executives, not for non-executive board members.

"They will be able to hold the director general to account for his editorial decisions, but only after programmes are transmitted. It is clear that the board's involvement is to oversee and deal with possible complaints about editorial decisions, but only after the transmission of programmes."

The BBC was accused of "squandering" public money by giving big redundancy pay-offs to staff who boomerang back to the Corporation.

While the decision to only publish the pay of talent earning more than £450,000, despite earlier suggestions this would be set at £150,000, was also raised.

Mr Whittingdale said the BBC will be subject to greater financial controls because it will be audited by the national audit office.

And he suggested the BBC may in the future look again at publishing the pay of more of its talent.

He told the House he had "some sympathy" with those who wanted the BBC to go further in the pay they publish.

He said: "This was a matter which we debated with the BBC as to what was the appropriate level to set for publication, and we set it at £450,000 after that debate with the BBC as a first step.

"It will mean that those individuals who are the highest paid on the BBC pay roll will now be identified and I think that's an important step forward in transparency."

He added: "I would encourage the BBC to go further, the BBC did express concerns about the consequences if they were required to publish the names of more individuals at lower levels of pay, but we will see how this first step goes.

"I share your hope that in due course we might see more publication."

SNP culture, media and sport spokesman John Nicolson said the BBC has a "problem of trust" in Scotland and claimed the corporation has recognised it "made a mistake" in how it covered the Scottish independence referendum.

The former BBC presenter said: "I am passionate about editorially independent news, so I speak as a friend, albeit a critical one, when I say I do not think the BBC covered itself in glory during our referendum on independence.

"The problem was that the BBC treated the referendum coverage not as a binary choice but as a traditional election. The BBC recognises it made a mistake in that. Let me tell you how the BBC recognises that.

"The BBC on the one hand says 'we made no mistakes whatsoever in our coverage of the referendum', but then simultaneously the BBC says 'we must learn the lessons from the Scottish referendum in the way that we cover the European referendum,' and they tell me now that that is what they have done in the current coverage.

"You cannot both say that you made no mistakes in covering the Scottish referendum and say simultaneously that you will learn mistakes from it - it is intellectually incoherent."

The closure of the iPlayer loophole will be a further financial burden on cash-strapped students, a Labour MP said.

Liz McInnes said the Government had failed to consult any student groups on its proposal to force the public to pay a licence fee for using iPlayer.

The Heywood and Middleton MP said the change would "unfairly" hit students who often access the BBC online for learning purposes.

"With the gap in available financial support and the average cost of living for students running to thousands of pounds a year, the idea that students have spare cash to cover this proposed additional cost is bordering on the ridiculous," she said.

"The simplest solution is to offer an exemption for students who solely access the BBC IPlayer and we support calls on the Government to revisit this decision.

"I urge the secretary of state to rethink the closure of the iPlayer loophole to do something positive for our students and make them exempt from it."

Graham Jones, the Labour MP for Hyndburn, suggested the new emphasis on the BBC providing distinctive programming was evidence of the Government trying to "set the BBC up to fail".

"I don't think the public will be fooled into believing that this represents anything other than an attempt to marginalise the BBC in favour of its commercial competitors," he said.

"The requirement of so-called distinctive content overseen by the commercial regulator Ofcom will inevitably undermine the BBC by restricting its popularity.

"It will push popular programmes off peak time slots and the problem will be that less popular shows will then harm the BBC's excellent viewing figures and reputation.

"This in turn will enable a future government to push an agenda of further cuts and reform with the Government having set the BBC up to fail."

But Tory Huw Merriman said the new distinctive requirement should not pose the BBC any problems.

The MP for Bexhill and Battle said: "I don't believe the BBC should have anything to fear from the addition of the word distinctive.

"Originality is what the BBC does best and it does consistently."

Mr Merriman said there will need to be a "common sense" interpretation of the concept after Mr Jones intervened and asked what the impact of the term could be on the BBC's sporting coverage.

Meanwhile, Glyn Davies, the Tory MP for Montgomeryshire, said the Government's White Paper had been "welcomed across the board".

He said: "Just because we are huge supporters of the BBC doesn't mean that we don't from time to time criticise the BBC.

"My approach to the BBC is a little bit like my approach to the Welsh rugby team: I love it second only to my own family but when they play badly I feel I have got a right to criticise."

Shadow culture minister Chi Onwurah claimed the Conservative Government was messing with the BBC because it is a "public success story" which undermines the party's ideology.

She said: "Mr Whittingdale seems to have set out to deliberately diminish (the BBC), undermine its finances, independence and by insisting that the BBC be distinctive, in some way distancing itself from successful popular broadcasting.

"This change has nothing to down with equipping the BBC for a new age of digital technology and changing methods of media consumption... this is everything to do with hobbling a great British institution."

She added: "The Government are messing with the fundamentals with our Beeb, not to equip it for the digital age, or enable it to fight the new global behemoths or better represent a diverse society but because the BBC is a public sector success story and that undermines the crooked ideology of this free-wheeling Government."

But Culture Minister Ed Vaizey insisted he would "bow to no-one in his love and respect for the BBC" and has been following the steamy period drama Versailles.

He said: "I am currently immersed, immersed, in Versailles, of course, and if anyone wants to understand the dominance of the British media, it comes to something when the French have to make a 10 episode series about one of the most important episodes in their history and it has to be done in English so it can be done on the BBC.

"Quite right, who wants Brexit when, if we remain, the French have to make all their programmes in English?"

He added that he cannot get to sleep without listening to BBC Radio 5 Live.

Press Association

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