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Reith and reform: the final steps for the new BBC Royal Charter

Victoria Hemingway, Political Consultant | Dods Monitoring

3 min read Partner content

Dods Monitoring’s Victoria Hemingway lays out the final stages before the renewed Royal Charter comes into play.

Last month Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport laid the draft BBC Charter and agreement before Parliament. A long awaited document, it followed a controversial consultation period and the publication of the White Paper in May of this year.

Prior to coming into effect on 1 January 2017, the draft charter has endured a lengthy but optimistic debate in Westminster and the devolved nations.

Having been compared to the NHS’ cradle to grave service and described as a national treasure, representatives from all parties and nations welcomed measures to establish a new Unitary Board, with 9 out of the 14 members appointed by the Corporation.

This was a victory for both the BBC and stakeholders alike who had voiced concerns about ministerial influence over, and independence of, the Corporation. The previous White Paper had guaranteed only 50 per cent of the members as BBC appointees.

Whether this will truly safeguard independence and editorial freedom is yet to be seen, however. The Secretary of State will still play a role in the selection of the Board’s chair, whilst Ofcom, as regulator, will judge the BBC’s performance against their own definition of “distinctiveness”.

Elsewhere the draft charter amends the public purpose of the BBC to include an emphasis upon representation of the UK’s diverse communities and nations. Although a welcome addition, the devolved nations have emphasised the need for the BBC to stick to its commitment and truly reflect their identity and needs.

This was particularly evident amongst SNP members, who in the House of Commons pressed an amendment which would see BBC funds and editorial commissioning devolved. This was rejected and even criticised as a tool of independence used by a party “hell-bent on destroying the sovereign United Kingdom”.

The Labour Party seems to have scrambled for points of contention during debate, but found criticism in the Government’s decision to give the BBC responsibility for paying the TV licence fees for over 75s.

This ship has perhaps sailed as Bradley noted this was a matter “dealt with outside the charter arrangements”. However, Tom Watson, newly appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, said the Labour Party would seek to table amendments to challenge this in the Digital Economy Bill.

Only in the New Year will we have a clear idea of the renewed Royal Charter, which will see the BBC through into its second century.

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