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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

New BBC Charter – has anything really changed?

The Government has announced a new draft Royal Charter for the BBC covering the next 11 years and aimed at ensuring that “a strong, distinctive, independent BBC will continue to thrive for years to come.”

Using much of the flowery language of the previous Charter, the arguments on the day of the announcement focused on the naming and shaming of BBC presenters and journalists who earn more that £150,000. But this is a side-show and the BBC has far more to worry about, and a firm understanding that any debate will be cut short as the current Charter will expire at the end of this year.

The new draft BBC Charter amazingly whitewashes the licence fee debate. For those people who assure us that the licence fee is value for money – pence for the pounds spent with competitors – there is no problem. The Charter says it is not “ideal” but the best option and ignores the fact that it penalising infrequent viewers and the very poorest households. And to those glum people it cheerfully reinforces that the licence fee will rise with inflation over the next five years!

But where does that leave its longer term future and the idea of subscription fees? Sorry but again more long grass with a promise to explore the options.

Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, broadly welcomed the new draft Charter, saying: “This hard-won Charter is now an opportunity to write the next chapter in the BBC’s history. It will deliver the strong and creative BBC the public believes in. It provides an 11-year charter and a licence fee guaranteed for 11 years. It endorses the remit, scale and scope of the BBC, and backs it as a great British institution.”

With Ofcom taking the lead regulatory role, even the BBC Trust will be replaced by a Trustee Board in which the Government will nominate key people – although apparently less than was expected.

Again Mr Hall reassures us: “The BBC is a public service broadcaster – not a state broadcaster. I am glad they have reconsidered. There will now be an equal number of board-appointed Non-Executive Directors alongside the ones appointed by the Government. And there will now be four Executive directors on the board too. An independent and strong BBC is what the public want and demand.”

Reasonable endeavours

Digital radio is obviously heralded as the new standard and the new BBC Charter states: “The BBC must use all reasonable endeavours to co-operate promptly and in good faith with any department of the UK Government involved in the planning or implementation of a digital radio switchover.”

So returning to the argument of the day and the idea of publishing the names of those on £150k salaries. This was neatly delivered by Mrs May’s new Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley, who said the new obligations to reveal details of stars’ pay would help make the BBC a more “transparent and open” organisation.

Tony Hall steps in with “Our position on talent pay has not changed and all major broadcasters have questioned the merit of the proposal. The BBC is already incredibly transparent and we publish what we spend on talent pay – a bill which has fallen in recent years. The BBC operates in a competitive market and this will not make it easier for the BBC to retain the talent the public love. Ultimately, the BBC should be judged on the quality of its programmes.”

He might, but most of us recognise the media is a take-your-chances kind of place, and for many the BBC will still continue to offer them the safest net for continuing to pay their mortgage while staying in the public eye.

After all, it says BBC personnel who earn more than that amount will be highlighted – but it will not say what any individual salary is. While I can hear the tut-tuts from those a bit precious about their routine of morning listening to the Today programme or BBC 2 using the radio they were given when they went to College or like my own Grandfather on the Gramophone in the living room – can I see revolution ahead?

I doubt it as for however many anti-licence fee payers agree with the “we don’t need it” youth there isn’t enough change in this publication for that.

More likely is that the draft Charter will be debated in Parliament and the devolved Parliaments this autumn before being presented to the Privy Council for approval.

One thing for certain is that the document will then come into force starting on January 1, 2017 – even if the Board of Trustees and Ofcom are lagging behind.

Liz Justice