At the end of 2016, the BBC will enter a new stage in its history as the Charter which governs the world’s largest and most successful public broadcaster will expire. The BBC was established in 1922 and became a Corporation by Royal Charter in 1927, which instituted the BBC as an ‘instrument of education and entertainment’. Each Charter runs for ten years and sets out the function and governance of the BBC for the length of that Charter. When the Charter was last renewed, in 2006, the Board of Governors was abolished and replaced with the current model of governance, headed by the BBC Trust. In addition, the BBC renewed its commitment to impartiality, nationwide representation, and the promotion of cultural and creative excellence. The BBC faces radically new challenges in 2016 compared to 2006. The last ten years have seen technological developments, changed viewing habits, the creation of the iPlayer, a huge increase in TV on demand, and an increasingly vocal campaign to abolish the Licence Fee. The new Charter will be required to adapt to these unfamiliar conditions.
Last week, the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale OBE MP announced that the BBC had agreed to pay the Licence Fees of those aged over-75, at a cost of around £650m. The government also announced that it would allow the Licence Fee (which currently stands at £145.50) to rise with inflation and to ensure that only Licence Fee holders could use the iPlayer service.
Due to the nature of the License Fee, and the BBC’s status as a hallmark of British culture, there is a significant debate about what sort of a role the BBC should play in broadcasting. Many argue that the BBC should try to avoid chasing ratings and instead focus on programmes that provide cultural depth. There have been continued reports that programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice are facing scrutiny as part of the review of the entire network. The Voice, launched to compete with ITV’s X Factor, is part of a culture of commercial programming at the BBC which reportedly should be amongst ‘the first that should go’ according to DCMS sources. The Culture Secretary recently commented on the issue, questioning whether the BBC needs to maintain the amount of programming that it currently broadcasts. However, he emphasised how he would “endeavour to strengthen” the BBC and its unique qualities, not weaken them, during Charter Renewal. The review is also expected to look at the role of the BBC News website and how it can be streamlined so as to not inhibit national and local newspapers. Many critics of the new Culture Secretary suggest that he is punitively punishing the BBC for what many claimed was biased election coverage against the Conservatives.
Evidently, the BBC faces intense scrutiny over its purpose and its role in the media industry. Going forward, the Culture Secretary has appointed an eight-person panel to work with him on Charter Renewal, and a Green Paper on the corporation’s future. Through the Charter, the government will be able to renegotiate the role of the BBC and establish how it will progress as a public service broadcaster. In an increasingly technological age, where television is no longer solely watched on the family television, but on iPhones, on tablets and through on-demand services, it is patently obvious that the BBC has to adapt.
Whittingdale has spent ten years as Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, scrutinising and monitoring the work of DCMS and the BBC. Now it is his time to use his knowledge of media and broadcasting to have a direct impact on the BBC for years to come.