BBC to be externally regulated in 90-year history first, Government to announce


The BBC is to be regulated by an external organisation for the first time in its 90-year history, the Government will announce today.

The change is one of a number of proposals contained in a long-awaited White Paper on the BBC's future, which also includes a rise in the licence fee and a plan to charge people to watch programmes on the iPlayer.

Independent media regulator Ofcom will become the official regulator of the BBC, replacing the internal BBC Trust. The BBC's charter will also be renewed every 11 years, rather than 10 years at present.

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale will outline the full proposals in parliament later today.

BBC Broadcasting house (Anthony Devlin/PA)

"The BBC is a world-class broadcaster and one of our country's greatest institutions. Our plans will mean that the BBC will keep making the great programmes we love and will continue to thrive in the future," a Government source said.

A key reform laid out in the White Paper is the formation of what the Government is calling a "strong unitary board for the BBC". The BBC will be responsible for appointing at least "half of the board members" and Ofcom will be the external regulator of the corporation.

Specific details of who would elect the other half of the board have not yet been detailed. This change was one of the key suggestions made by Sir David Clementi last year as he detailed the results of an independent review into the way the BBC was governed.

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.

The former deputy governor of the Bank of England recommended that the current governing body, the BBC Trust, be abolished and suggested the corporation be regulated entirely by Ofcom.

The length of the charter will be extended to 11 years so that it is independent of any political cycle, and there will be a mid-term "health check" to ensure things are functioning as they should be.

The new Charter will also seek to champion and strengthen the independence of the BBC, with special "protections" for the BBC's editor-in-chief, the Director-General.

BBC's Broadcasting House

Key debates in the run up to charter renewal have been the question of government interference in the editorial independence of the BBC.

MPs expressed concern in parliament around reports that the Culture Secretary would look to prevent the BBC from screening popular shows at peak viewing times.

Whittingdale denied these claims as he addressed parliament and assured MPs there was no truth to the suggestion he would prevent the broadcaster from going head-to-head with commercial rivals.

Speculation has also been rife about whether or not Whittingdale will force the BBC to publish how much it pays top talent earning more than £450,000.

John Whittingdale will present the White Paper (Dominic Lipinski/PA )

Another area of contention between the BBC and Government is the question of "top-slicing" the licence fee, which would see the BBC forced to hand over a portion of the licence fee to commercial rivals in areas such as children's television, according to The Guardian.

The new paper states that the licence fee will increase in line with inflation for five years, meaning the current annual fee of £145.50 will rise from 2017 until 2022. Coupled with this change, the Government also plans to introduce a new process for determining what the licence fee cost is every five years.

"This will give the BBC the financial certainty it needs and increase its independence from government," the paper explains.

A screenshot of BBC iPlayer (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The Government is also closing the BBC iPlayer loophole, by extending the licence to include viewers watching BBC content on catch-up through the iPlayer or other digital platforms.

Plans for the above were set in motion in July 2015 when the corporation reached an agreement with the Government which saw it agree to pay for the cost of providing over-75s with free television licences. In return, the Government pledged to review the licence fee and how it functioned in regard to the iPlayer.

Diversity will also be a key feature of the new charter, which Whittingdale had hinted at the previous day when pushed by Labour's David Lammy about the lack of people from ethnic backgrounds on the BBC board.

Labour MP David Lammy  (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Tottenham MP Lammy said: "Currently on the board there is just one ethnic minority. It would be a great travesty if the same old people, in the same old Westminster village, occupy the same old roles."

Whittingdale replied: "Appointments to the board is something that obviously is made clear tomorrow.

"What I can say to you is the importance of diversity is something which is central to the White Paper, in terms of those who work for the BBC, those who appear on BBC programmes and indeed those who watch BBC programmes."

Whittingdale had also suggested that children's channels CBBC and CBeebies would be protected in the new White Paper.

Danger Mouse and Penfold is one of CBBC's programmes  (BBC)

Labour MP Mary Creagh (Wakefield) had raised concerns about the future of the children's channels, which she said were loved by parents because they were free from adverts for expensive toys.

Whittingdale replied: "I share your admiration for the programming which the BBC produces for children, particularly, as most of the commercial sector has withdrawn from children's programming.

"I do consider that a very important part of the BBC's public service role and I hope that you will find measures in the White Paper that you too will be able to welcome."

Lord Waheed Alli, founder of the Great BBC Campaign, said Whittingdale's claims that his proposals guarantee the BBC's independence were "desperate spin".

 Lord Waheed Alli  (Ian West/PA)

He said: "After weeks of leaks and selected briefing from John Whittingdale, he is now claiming he has guaranteed the BBC's independence. But no-one will believe this desperate spin from a Culture Secretary who has made no secret of his ideological ambition to undermine the BBC.

"This week, as part of a cross-party group of peers who care deeply about public service broadcasting, we set out three tests against which the White Paper should be judged on Thursday:

"These are that any changes must not compromise the BBC's independence, affect the BBC's funding from the licence fee or diminish the BBC's mission to educate, inform and entertain the whole country."

BBC's Broadcasting House

"We will wait and see the detail of the White Paper and publish our assessment of whether it meets these tests.

"But, given how the BBC is loved across the country and admired across the world, we must remain vigilant and deeply wary of what the Culture Secretary proposes."