Three-D Issue 35: Musical chairs: the phoney war over BBC governance

Tom Chivers
Goldsmiths, University of London

So farewell to Sir David Clementi, the outgoing Chairman of the BBC. Most previous Chairs are remembered only by an anorak’s shorthand of reforms, scandals and political conflicts: Real Lives, ‘internal markets’, the Hutton Inquiry, Savile, DMI, and so on. By modern standards Clementi’s four years in office have been uneventful, though his term has been shrouded by a deepening sense of imminent crisis at the BBC. Management’s lumbering response to the gender pay gap (down, barely, from 9.3% in 2017 to 6.2% in 2020) and plans to cut 450 jobs in local and regional journalism are just two recent examples of a stolid, centralised corporate culture that risks the BBC losing the trust of staff and audiences alike.

Along with intensified concerns about political bias, not least during the Coronavirus pandemic, the fiercest cuts from the government’s draconian 2015 funding settlement have also begun to bite. With the BBC choosing to scrap concessionary licences for over-75s (following the government’s decision to stop funding the scheme), more than half a million over-75s have yet to either buy a licence or claim pension credit exemption, potentially costing the BBC up to £86m by April 2022. Overall the BBC has seen a 30% reduction in its public funding since 2010, and its February 2021 ‘Value for Audiences’ report heralds £408m further cuts across programmes, services and staff to meet the shortfall for just the next year.

In his valedictory letter to BBC staff, Clementi cautioned that it would be “a colossal act of self-harm if regulators and governments were to take steps which diminished the role of the BBC”. His sentiment is pleasant enough, and neatly timed with the latest lull in the government’s relentless will-they-won’t-they threats to decriminalise the licence fee. Yet this remark glosses over Clementi’s own role in designing the current policy structures that have already diminished the BBC, and which make it easier for governments and regulators to diminish it more in the immediate future.

As an ‘independent’ advisor to the government’s Charter renewal in 2015-16, Clementi proposed scrapping the BBC Trust (then the Corporation’s official ‘steward of the public interest’) and shifting oversight of BBC services entirely to the market regulator Ofcom. Cheered by commercial media lobbyists, the Clementi Review’s recommendations formed a central part of the 2017-2026 BBC Royal Charter, which prioritises restricting the BBC’s market impact far ahead of providing a popular, universal public service broadcaster. As an added kick to the BBC’s political independence, Theresa May appointed Sir David as the first Chair of the reformed BBC Board, putting him at the head of the very same structures he had devised on the government’s behalf.

And so hello to Richard Sharp, David Clementi’s successor entrusted with steering the BBC’s corporate strategy within this new competition-conscious regime. Many will by now be familiar with Sharp’s biography: career City banker and Tory mega-donor with almost no experience of journalism or broadcasting. Sharp’s appointment may seem oddly like a reprieve for the BBC given that Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph editor and arch-critic of the licence fee, was for months the government’s frontrunner candidate. In his pre-appointment hearing at the DCMS Select Committee, Sharp told MPs he is “absolutely committed to the importance of public service broadcasting” and even declared his opposition to licence fee decriminalisation.

All well and good? Not quite. As well as demonstrating the deeply undemocratic appointments process and the entrenched government influence over the BBC’s structures, Sharp represents the ideal figure to keep the interests and concerns of the private sector (and the demands of ideological anti-BBC Conservatives) at the heart of BBC governance. As one media insider told the Guardian, “whatever you think of bankers, he [Sharp] is very client-friendly, and our biggest client is the government”. This mind-set of clients, consumers and markets sits uneasy with the basic social and cultural principles of public service unencumbered by profit motives, but is perfect for managing the BBC’s newly quasi-commercial mission set out in the Royal Charter framework.

This brings us to Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail editor poised to take over the reins as Chair of Ofcom. That Dacre appears to be Boris Johnson’s preferred choice to lead the super-regulator is somehow more alarming than the erstwhile campaign to impose Charles Moore as BBC Chair. Firstly, Ofcom commands a sprawling constellation of broadcasting standards, telecoms provision, market regulation and infrastructure at local and national levels – complex and rapidly evolving multimedia domains in which the 72-year-old lifelong print journalist has shown little expertise or interest.

Secondly, Dacre makes no secret of his antipathy to statutory regulation and his aversion to basic codes of ethical journalism – the two pillars of Ofcom’s legal duties to protect impartiality and high standards in British broadcasting. Given his 30-year track record at the Mail of peddling disinformation, discrimination and partisan screed, could we really expect level-headedness and a respect for the wider public interest if Dacre were in charge of interpreting Ofcom’s balance and impartiality regulations? (This is before considering the likely impact of the ‘anti-woke’ GB News and Murdoch’s News UK TV, which both seem purpose-built to test the limits of the UK’s broadcasting code.)

Thirdly, Dacre openly despises the BBC as an institution and would not hesitate to break it down in any way possible. In his 2007 Cudlipp Lecture, Dacre railed against the “BBC monolith … distorting Britain’s media market, crushing journalistic pluralism and imposing a mono cultural that is inimical to healthy democratic debate”. This attack, glazed in the sullen Mail style, expressed the same logic of the BBC ‘crowding out’ commercial rivals that is now at the centre of Ofcom’s regulation of the BBC’s market impact. Across the arsenal of Operating Licences, Competition Assessments and Competition Reviews that Ofcom can deploy against the BBC as it sees fit, the pervasive demand for ‘distinctiveness’ – the government’s byword for requiring that the BBC be “substantially different” from what is offered by the market – ensures that any potential public value of a BBC service never trumps the commercial interests of its competitors. In Dacre’s hands, such ‘last resort’ regulatory interventions would become the simplest tools for dismantling at whim any BBC output that treads on the market’s toes.

It may be that the noise surrounding Dacre is part of the same political posturing which for the last decade has been the premier tactic in the Conservative government’s phoney war on the BBC. Threats of aggressive reform – like forcing the BBC to cancel Strictlybanning ‘left wing bias’ in programmes, or appointing Charles Moore as Chair – are announced and left to gather steam in excitable right-wing newspapers, before eventually being shelved in place of ‘moderate compromises’. These compromises still infringe on the BBC’s public service mission in subtle (though no less damaging) ways, but their main effect is to reassert the government’s distorted influence over what the BBC can make and do.

This is not to say that these appointments are unimportant, or that Sharp and Dacre serving together as Chairs of the BBC and Ofcom wouldn’t mark a major threat to the BBC (let alone the rest of the UK’s public service media). These cases are symptoms of a deeper political crisis in BBC governance that stems from three inter-related trends: first, the exclusive power of government ministers to make and change BBC policy without any parliamentary scrutiny or public accountability; second, the increasing use of licence fee negotiations to pressure the BBC into shrinking its core public services; and third, the normalisation of corporate media interests and elite lobbying techniques as standard features of contemporary BBC policymaking.

2022 will mark a defining moment in the Corporation’s history, as it faces both a mid-term Charter review and a full renegotiation of its licence fee funding up to 2027. On the current trajectory, these debates will produce more ‘wither on the vine’ policies of funding cuts and regulatory armlocks – or potentially something drastically worse. If we resign ourselves too easily to the least-worst option mentality, we may find that the terms of coming battles for the future of public media are already set against the public having any meaningful democratic role. As they say, the real fight starts now.

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