Tuesday 20 March 2018

Peer warns of possible public protests over BBC Charter White Paper

Maria Eagle said John Whittingdale
Maria Eagle said John Whittingdale "seems determined to diminish" the BBC

The people of Britain may take to the streets if the Government is "stupid" in its handling of the BBC's future, a senior peer has warned.

Lord Lester, who has set out plans to protect the broadcaster from ministerial interference, said he hopes a protest is not needed when Culture Secretary John Whittingdale publishes the White Paper on BBC Charter renewal - but added that it may happen "if necessary".

He is backed by One Foot In The Grave star Richard Wilson, who said he would happily join a march in support of the corporation.

Speaking at the start of a key week in the future of the publicly-funded broadcaster, the 79-year-old actor, who played Victor Meldrew, said: "I would march in the streets. I would. As long as they don't march too far.

"I would certainly march. I'd be happy to march."

He added: "I hope that, as the independent BBC campaign develops, the Government will be forced into one of their many, many U-turns. They're very good at them these days.

"I don't think they realise how strong the public feeling is for the BBC."

His comments came just hours after Wolf Hall actor Mark Rylance led a passionate defence of the BBC at the Bafta TV Awards, where big names from the small screen spoke up as the controversy over the Government's intentions for the corporation deepens.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Liberal Democrat QC, has drafted the legislative proposal to guarantee the BBC's independence in the management of its own affairs.

He said: "At some point the public at large will have to join us in a great campaign to make the Government realise that the BBC is our treasure and we are not going to allow any Government and any politicians to spoil it."

Asked if he could see a scenario whereby members of the public stage a protest on the streets of Britain, he said: "I hope not. But if necessary we may have to put our bodies where the truth is."

He added: "I think it's a possibility if the Government are really stupid. But if the Government are not stupid then we won't have to march."

Shadow culture secretary Maria Eagle said Mr Whittingdale "seems determined to diminish" the corporation, adding that the Labour Party will oppose him "all the way".

The White Paper could reportedly be published as soon as Thursday and will set out a tougher new regime as part of a proposed deal to grant a new Royal Charter to safeguard the service for another 11 years.

Prime Minister David Cameron hailed the BBC as one of the "most recognised brands on the planet" during a speech at the British Museum - shortly before Lord Lester, Lord Fowler and Lord Alli set out their three tests for whether Mr Whittingdale has taken account of public concern.

Speaking at the event in Convocation Hall in Westminster, Lord Fowler said: "The Government should do nothing which compromises an independent BBC."

Lord Lester said: "Nothing should be done in the White Paper which affects the BBC funding from the licence fee."

And Lord Alli said: "Nothing should be done to dilute that core mission of educate, inform and entertain."

Reports suggest Mr Whittingdale plans to force the BBC to publish how much it pays top talent earning more than £150,000 and impose scheduling restrictions to stop it showing hit shows like Strictly Come Dancing at prime time, going head to head with commercial broadcasters.

The Observer reported that at least 20 Tories in the Commons and Lords are ready to oppose the White Paper and attempt to force the Government into another U-turn following climbdowns on forced academisation and admitting child refugees from Europe.

Lord Fowler, the Conservative peer and former Cabinet minister, said of the BBC: "It is not a state broadcaster acting as a spokesman for the government in power.

"There are enough examples of that, as we all know, around the world. But the BBC's reputation rests on it being clear that it is free of government interference.

"And, frankly, we would be mad to put that reputation at risk."

Jane Bonham-Carter, Liberal Democrat spokeswoman for culture, media and sport, said: "It is very timely that the day after BBC stars criticise the Government's threats to the future of the BBC at the Baftas, Liberal Democrat peers are putting forward a Bill which aims to maintain the independence of this essential national institution.

"Independent journalism, free from Government interference, is a vital part of a healthy liberal democracy.

"Everyone should be deeply concerned when the BBC's impartiality is under threat.

"The Government cannot get away with its attack on the BBC's capacity to deliver innovative, creative programming."

Press Association

Style Newsletter

Stay on top of the latest fashion, beauty and celeb gossip in our Style newsletter.

Also in this section