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Industry reacts to BBC review

Proposed government reforms to the BBC have been blasted in some quarters of the TV industry, but others, including UK producer group Pact, have said the changes will benefit the wider market.

John Whittingdale

John Whittingdale

UK culture secretary John Whittingdale revealed plans earlier today to do away with the BBC Trust and replace it with a governing board, introduce more financial scrutiny over the pubcaster and force it to reveal the pay of its top stars.

Whittingdale also said the iPlayer loophole, which currently allows people to watch the online catch-up service without paying the licence fee, would be closed and encouraged the pubcaster to introduce new subscription services at home and internationally to drive revenues.

His reforms also gave the go-ahead for BBC Studios – in return for doing away with all in-house production guarantees.

The minister, who had previously said he had no intention of dismantling the BBC ahead of its charter renewal later this year, described some of the speculation over his plans as “ill-founded hysterical speculation by left-wing luvvies and others,” in the House of Commons today and added that “in actual fact what the government has proposed has been widely welcomed by, amongst others, the BBC.”

Laura Mansfield, chairwoman of UK trade body Pact, added that the white paper “will give BBC commissioners the freedom to choose the very best ideas, wherever they come from, whether that’s BBC Studios, the smallest or the largest production companies, while ensuring diversity of supply and regionality is rightly protected.”

John McVay, Pact’s CEO, added that “the only regret is that we still await a decision on the secretary of state’s review of the terms.”

John McVay

John McVay

Alex DeGroote, media analyst at trading and advisory firm Peel Hunt, described the proposals as “fairly benign for the BBC, at first glance. Most reforms appear to relate to governance, and financial oversight, rather than an overhaul of programming and/or BBC structure. Some of the market’s worst fears have not come to pass.”

Armando Ianucci, the writer behind The Thick of It and Veep, had attacked the UK government for trying to curtail the BBC during his MacTaggart Lecture last year but said the proposals looked reasonable.

“No cuts to BBC budget, no interference in schedules, and majority on board not appointed by govt. This is good to hear…,” he tweeted.

“We’ve come a long way from threats to scale and scope of BBC voiced last year. Thanks to constant pressure from the public. Good to hear that quality and distinctiveness is emphasised. The BBC does it anyway – now it should be left to get on with it.”

Brian Cox, another critic of proposed changes and a presenter of BBC2 shows including Wonders of the Universe, added that the “BBC Charter renewal now looks sensible, subject to reducing ministerial influence over appointments to the board.”

However, Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky, who defended the pubcaster at the Bafta’s on Sunday, again hit out at the government’s proposals over governance. The new Unitary Board, replacing the BBC Trust, will have half of its board appointed by the BBC with the remaining half appointed via a public appointment process led by government.

“If word gets out that the BBC’s editorial board has six government nominees on it, you can kiss goodbye to any sense of the BBC being an independent broadcaster,” he told the Radio Times.

Armando Iannucci delivering this year's MacTaggart Lecture

Armando Iannucci delivering this year’s
MacTaggart Lecture

“Some of the more terrifying proposals have failed to reach the White Paper it’s true, but the central one which troubles me, and which was the subject of my speech at Bafta on Sunday, is still there.”

Former BBC Trust chair Michael Lyons, who left in 2011, added that he was concerned over the threat of interference from the current government. He told BBC Radio that the white paper had raised “real suspicions that ministers want to get much closer to the BBC and that is not in anybody’s interests.”

Maria Eagle, shadow culture secretary, also hit out at Whittingdale and accused him of being “totally out of step” with licence fee payers and of partaking in “ideologically-driven meddling” over the drive for distinctive content.

However, BBC Trust chairman Rona Fairhead, who will remain in charge of the new Unitary Board until 2018, said: “Constructive engagement between the government, the BBC and the public has delivered a white paper that sets good principles, strengthens the BBC’s governance and regulation and cements a financial settlement that will sustain the strong BBC that is loved and admired by the public.”

BBC chief Tony Hall earlier broadly welcomed the report but said he had concerns over the independence of its new governing body as well as plans for the National Audit Office to delve into its operations.

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