New Culture Secretary called for BBC to be ‘mutualised’

Culture Secretary Lisa Nandy leaving Downing Street after first Cabinet meeting
Culture Secretary Lisa Nandy leaving Downing Street after first Cabinet meeting - ANADOLU

The new Culture Secretary has previously argued for decisions on the future of the BBC to be made by licence fee payers.

Lisa Nandy’s new brief includes responsibility for overseeing the public broadcaster, which is led by a 14-strong board.

In a Labour leadership hustings in 2020, Ms Nandy argued that the corporation should be “mutualised” to turn ownership and decision-making powers over to those paying the licence fee.

One of the first duties of the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will be to take over an ongoing review of the licence fee launched by the Tories in 2023.

Discussing the future of the BBC, Ms Nandy said:  “I’d like to see us mutualise the BBC so that those decisions are taken by a wider group of people.”

Sir Keir Starmer meets BBC director-general Tim Davie as he arrives for the TV election debate in Nottingham
Sir Keir Starmer meets BBC director-general Tim Davie as he arrives for the TV election debate in Nottingham - WPA POOL/GETTY IMAGES

She argued that it was right to “ask yourself who owns the media and who runs it”, and how this ownership model might affect political coverage.

Her comments were made in response to what she claimed to have been hostile media treatment of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

A mutual company is one that is owned by all of its members, not by a board or shareholders. Mutualising the BBC could mean licence-fee payers would become direct stakeholders and able to elect representatives to hold the BBC board to account.

It could also mean executive pay and budgets could be decided at an AGM open to all members.

The BBC chairman is currently appointed on the advice of the Culture Secretary, along with four non-executive board members.  The board then selects five further non-executive members, and then altogether appoints its executive members, including the director-general.

John Lewis model

A mutual model would radically alter the BBC’s leadership structure, and see the broadcaster operate in the same way as John Lewis or the Co-op.

This model would essentially make the licence fee similar to a members’ fee, allowing public subscribers who pay their £169.50 per year to vote in BBC annual general meetings and to have a say in selecting the director-general and other key positions.

Ms Nandy will take responsibility for a review of the licence fee which will examine whether the BBC could switch to a more commercial model.

Labour promised in its manifesto to work “constructively with the BBC and our other public service broadcasters”, but did not put forward any pledge to alter the leadership structure of the corporation.

The concept of “mutualising” the BBC has been floated in the past, and was put before Parliament in 2013 by the late Labour MP Tessa Jowell.

She said that the “BBC should become the country’s biggest mutual” and that the “public and the licence fee payers who should be in the driving seat”.

Her cause was taken up in 2016  Labour’s Gareth Thomas and Tory MP Steve Baker, who warned that the BBC’s governance model created a “vacuum into which political interference from the government (of any colour) can leak”.

They also argued that, given the huge amounts of public money involved, the public should have a democratic voice in the running of the BBC.

They wrote at the time: “The BBC should be mutualised. This would mean TV licence holders becoming members and owners of the BBC, thus solving the ownership deficit.”

Earlier this year BBC director-general Tim Davie suggested wealthier Britons could be made to pay a higher BBC licence fee.

Mr Davie also said the corporation was looking at licence fee non-payment and whether criminalisation is the best option to enforce compliance.