A white paper published yesterday (12 May) by the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport has proposed a number of changes to how the BBC will run and regulate its activity and editorial output from 2017 onwards.
The document draws from 192,564 responses to a public consultation on the future of the BBC, a representative poll of some 4,000 adults across the UK, 16 focus groups and 12 in-depth interviews.
The BBC's current charter expires at the end of 2016 and the white paper, drafted by John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, looks at aspects such as the BBC's approach to commissioning programmes, the diversity of its workforce, its scale in the British broadcasting market and the need for a sustainable funding model.
The BBC's charter will now run from a period of 11 years starting in 2017, to separate the review process from the election cycle.
At a Media Society event in London last night, a panel of experts discussed what the BBC's future might look like if the next charter incorporates the requirements outlined in the white paper as it currently stands.
BBC governance and regulation
Among the panellists was James Heath, director of policy at the BBC, who expressed a positive view of the white paper. But he disagreed with one of the document's recommendations – that the new unitary board to govern the BBC, replacing the current BBC Trust, should have six of its members appointed by the government.
"Clearly we expected a level of public appointment, but our view was that the board needs to be appointed in an independent and transparent way, so there is a disagreement about who will make up this appointment system," he said.
The white paper stated that at least half of this board will be appointed by the BBC itself and that regulation of the BBC will move to Ofcom, the UK's regulator for the communications industry, who will "have the power to investigate any aspect" of BBC services.
David Elstein, former head of programming for Sky Television, said the BBC unitary board will be in charge of the public interest aspect, but there is a need for an external regulator to step in when and if the broadcaster "gets something wrong".
However, he did not seem confident in Ofcom's ability to step up to the job and deliver in its current form.
Funding the BBC
The previous idea of moving from a licence fee to a household levy system, similar to Germany, has been dropped in the paper.
According to the document, the BBC's licence fee, which is made up of £3.7 billion in public money, will increase in line with inflation for five years, starting with 2017/18.
The paper opened up the possibility of additional funding methods through subscriptions and stated that to enable partnerships with other media players, all BBC content except news and news-related current affairs programmes will be open to external commissioning, removing the in-house guarantee.
Half of the BBC's programming is currently made in-house, with 25 per cent going to independent producers and the remaining percentage open to competitive bidding from BBC and other independent companies.
There are also plans to expand the licence fee to include people watching on-demand content on iPlayer both in the UK and when they travel abroad in Europe.
But Elstein was sceptical about finding a method to monitor these different consumption habits.
"If you couldn't access iPlayer without typing in your licence fee number for example, that I think would be a step in the right direction."
"We will look at the most effective way of enforcing this point and finding the right balance between maintaining licence fee contributions but also keeping that iPlayer audience," added Heath.
More diversity both on and off-screen
Diversity was an important theme highlighted in the document, which asked for a "commitment to diversity to serve all audiences, both on-screen and off-screen".
The panellists argued the BBC could benefit from looking up to the diversity policies of broadcasters such as Channel 4. At the end of April, the BBC pledged half of its workforce will be women "on screen, on air and in leadership roles" by 2020.
It also said disabled people will make up 8 per cent of the workforce, another 8 per cent will be comprised of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people, and 15 per cent of employees will come from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME) in staff and leadership roles.
"The BBC needs to reflect the population as a whole in order to broadcast to the population as a whole," said Huw Merriman, conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, "but it's important to not lose sight of the quality of broadcasting because you're too busy looking at figures and stats on diversity."
Elstein said he would also add to the white paper's recommendations on diversity that the BBC should commission at least one hundred hours of programmes, at least half at peak time across all genres, produced or written by a BAME person.
"Ticking the box in terms of how many BAME employees [the BBC] has, that doesn't do it for me. There is a huge talent pool out there which has no access, so we need a direct initiative. Give them guaranteed access," Elstein added.
What does a more distinctive BBC mean?
The paper called for more distinctiveness in BBC output, outlining the upcoming board should "place a requirement for distinctive services at the heart of the BBC's overall core mission of informing, educating and entertaining".
This is to support the statement Tony Hall, the BBC's director general, made in his speech in September 2015, that the aim is to create a BBC that is "more distinguishable than ever – and clearly distinguishable from the market."
Some 43 per cent percent of the public surveyed found BBC One – where 46 per cent of the broadcaster's content budget is spent – "quite similar" to ITV1 excluding the adverts, according to research conducted by GfK in May 2016 cited in the document.
Closer collaboration with local news outlets is also in the cards for the next charter. The BBC will invest £8 million to support 150 local journalists from 2017, under an agreement with the News Media Association (NMA). The journalists will be employed by local news organisations to cover local authorities and public services for news providers that include the BBC.
The broadcaster will also set up a news bank, to syndicate audio and video content to local and regional news organisations across the UK, and invest in a hub for data journalism training in partnership with a university.
"The charter review process has been one of searching for answers – scope and scale, market impact, commercial versus public sector balance of the BBC.
"We found out that the two strongest assets the BBC has are its audience, which provided an overwhelmingly positive support, and the quality of the art. The BBC has never been more creatively stronger in many areas than it is today," said Heath.
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