British govt plans to reduce scope of BBC in remake

Consultation paper suggests broadcaster could become smaller and less competitive

LONDON • The Conservative government in Britain has set its sights on remaking the BBC, the broadcaster supported by national licence fees, after a political campaign in which the Conservatives complained that the BBC's news coverage has a left-wing bias.

On Thursday, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport John Whittingdale presented a consultation "Green Paper" to Parliament, the opening of a comprehensive study of the BBC's future, suggesting the corporation could become smaller, less costly and less competitive with British newspapers and private television channels.

The BBC, which is financed by an annual payment of £145.50 (S$309) from nearly every household that owns a colour television set or that can watch television in real time, is up for its 10-year charter review next year.

Mr Whittingdale, a known BBC critic, said he wanted to examine the nature, funding, reach and governance of the corporation, considered one of the finest, if not necessarily the most efficient, broadcasting networks in the world.

"With so much more choice in what to consume and how to consume it, we must at least question whether the BBC should try to be all things to all people, to serve everyone over every platform or if it should have a more precisely targeted mission," he told Parliament.

The review would look at how the BBC is financed, the scale of its output and whether it needs tougher oversight by a new regulatory body, replacing the much-criticised BBC Trust, he said.

It would also include a period of consultation with the public.

The fight is ideological and philosophical, as well as political. The BBC was founded more than 90 years ago as a state broadcaster with a mission to "inform, educate and entertain".

Those on the right believe the BBC is biased towards London and the left. Many on both the left and the right believe it is too afraid to offend anyone and takes "political correctness" to an absurd degree.

Critics believe that "Auntie", as the BBC is sometimes affectionately known, should stick to her knitting - documentaries, middlebrow programming, "objective" broadcast news, filling niche segments and gaps in the market that profit-driven companies would never bother to fill. Or as Mr Whittingdale suggested: "The BBC, as a public institution, should not have the same imperatives as commercial companies, such as trying to maximise audience share."

Others believe that competition from the BBC produces better programming and content all around. But there is no question that the BBC is a huge operation, employing close to 19,000 people on an annual budget of about £4.8 billion.

Mr George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, noted that the BBC News website "is a good product, but it is becoming a bit more imperial in its ambitions, crowding out national newspapers".

Most of Britain's newspapers are on the right and support the Conservatives and have complained about the BBC's move into non-broadcast news reporting.

The Green Paper, the BBC said in a statement, "would appear to herald a much diminished, less popular, BBC". "That would be bad for Britain and would not be the BBC that the public has known and loved for over 90 years." As for the larger changes suggested, the BBC said it would fight them, while praising itself as "a creative and economic powerhouse for Britain".

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2015, with the headline 'British govt plans to reduce scope of BBC in remake'. Print Edition | Subscribe