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Culture Secretary questions BBC's impartiality as he attacks 'narrow urban outlook'

Culture Secretary questions BBC's impartiality as he attacks 'narrow urban outlook'
4 min read

The BBC must shift away from its "narrow urban outlook" and better reflect the views of the entire country, according to the Culture Secretary.

In the latest sign that ministers are seeking a major shake-up at the broadcaster, Oliver Dowden will tell the BBC that it must do more to get in touch with the "whole of the United Kingdom".

And he will warn it to change in order to "retain support and relevance" in the years ahead.

The speech from Mr Dowden, who was appointed to the culture brief in last month's government reshuffle, comes after ministers vowed to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee.

And it follows briefings that the broadcaster could be forced to sell off most of its radio stations, trim its website and foot more of the bill for the BBC World Service under a radical overhaul being drawn up by Number 10. 

Speaking at the Media and Telecoms 2020 & Beyond conference, Mr Dowden will say: "As a Conservative, I understand that for institutions to retain support and relevance, they have to change.

"In the coming years we will be taking a proper look at our public service broadcasting system and the BBC's central role within it.

"This will start with the consultation on whether to decriminalise TV licence evasion. Then the process for agreeing the next licence fee settlement. And then, the mid-term review of the BBC Charter.

"All of this will be in the context of a licence fee based charter that runs to 2027."

On the broadcaster's output: "The BBC needs to be closer to, and understand the perspectives of, the whole of the United Kingdom and avoid providing a narrow urban outlook.

"By this, I don't just mean getting authentic and diverse voices on and off screen - although this is important.

"But also making sure there is genuine diversity of thought and experience.

"And this matters because if you don't have that, you miss what's important to people and you seem distant and disengaged."

Mr Dowden will also take aim at the BBC's news coverage, flagging Ofcom research which suggests "the perception of news impartiality is currently lower for some public service broadcasting channels than commercial channels like Sky and CNN".

He will say: "Ultimately, if people don't perceive impartiality, then they won't believe what they see and read and they'll feel it is not relevant to them.

"In an age of fake news and self reinforcing algorithms, the need for genuine impartiality is greater than ever."

The comments on the BBC's news output come after a boycott of the broadcaster's flagship Radio 4 news programme, Today. 

With the exception of Health Secretary Matt Hancock, ministers have not appeared on the show since the general election, with a source claiming in the wake of the vote that the BBC spoke only to "a pro-Remain metropolitan bubble in Islington" during the battle for Number 10.

A senior government source meanwhile told The Sunday Times earlier this month that Number 10 was “not bluffing on the licence fee” and would seek to replace it with a Netflix-style voluntary payment.

Mr Dowden will say: "We know that half of all UK homes have a subscription to a major streaming service, while under 18s now spend over an hour a day on YouTube.

"My generation is no longer just turning on the TV when we get home, but is consuming different types of content through the likes of iPlayer and Netflix.

"While younger generations are favouring self-generated content on platforms like YouTube.

"When there is so much choice around, the BBC and our public service broadcasters need to focus even more strongly on relevance and representation.

"So the BBC is an institution to be cherished.

"We would be crazy to throw it away but it must reflect all of our nation, and all perspectives.

"And it must rise to the challenge of how it will ensure its sustainability as a crucial service in a rapidly changing world.

"This work is crucial as we look to our nation's future in the years ahead."

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