What next for the BBC? Birt, Iannucci, Puttnam and more on its future

With the white paper published, we ask broadcasting experts what’s in store for the corporation and what it must do to thrive

John Birt was director general of the BBC from 1992 to 2000

The storm engulfing the BBC has abated, and the damage can now be assessed. Two issues matter above all others.

A second raid in five years on the BBC’s finances will mean a vast reduction in investment in original British production. With ITV and Channel 4 themselves investing progressively less - as unavoidable technology change bites into their economics - we are witnessing the long-term decline of UK production, and the slow destruction of nearly a century of inspired policy innovation in UK broadcasting – a system which has created by far the most successful stage for national expression and creativity on the globe. And no UK political party is addressing this impending national disaster.

We have also discovered that a royal charter, far from safeguarding the BBC’s independence, opens the way for British governments, like medieval kings, to have their way in privy council, to meddle with and fundamentally to change one of our most important institutions with no accountability to parliament whatsoever. Amendments were made mid-charter, for instance, to shift responsibility for funding World Service from the tax-payer to the domestic licence-payer. Ministers have dipped into the licence-fee pot to fund pet schemes the BBC itself would never have deemed suitable for licence funding. The BBC must now enjoy the protection of parliament and of statute.

Miriam O’Reilly in Costing the Earth
Miriam O’Reilly in Costing the Earth Photograph: BBC

Miriam O’Reilly was a presenter of Countryfile who successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination

I was pleased to read the corporation will be required to give greater focus to under-served audiences, because it is being far too slow in doing this.

The requirement will not go down well with the creatives who will not want to be made to consider whether their “vision” for a programme reflects its audience - but they have brought this upon themselves.

I have heard a lot of management talk since winning my ageism case against the broadcaster in 2011 about including more older female faces but very little has changed. A Lords communications committee report found it had an “informal policy” of discrimination against older women. Nothing is being done to tackle this. During my tribunal, the then controller of BBC Daytime was asked why he had given an on-screen role to a young, pretty, blond presenter when there were others with equal or more experience. He replied, “Because I liked the look of her [see footnote].” If personal preferences of this sort dictate who we end up watching on TV - and they do - no wonder the BBC has a diversity problem.

Our national broadcaster makes a lot of noise about its commitment to diversity but we as viewers are just not seeing it - this is why I would welcome diversity being enshrined in the new BBC charter.

Richard Ayre is a BBC trustee and a former deputy chief executive of BBC News

The white paper calls for even greater financial transparency from the BBC, imposing the National Audit Office as the corporation’s auditor. So when it comes to funding the BBC, let’s have the same transparency. Let the new charter commit governments to proposing the right level of the BBC’s future funding; let the BBC and independent scrutiny assess the consequences of that funding; let the public have their say about what they’re willing to pay, and then let parliament debate the proposition – publicly, transparently.

It’s good that a new BBC board will have the ability to push ahead with our drive for greater distinctiveness in programming. But the BBC must still appeal to everyone, because everyone pays, and the interests of the audience must come ahead of the interests of commercial broadcasters who want less competition. Ofcom is to be charged with assessing BBC distinctiveness, and the government will give them “guidance” on “content requirements and performance metrics”. Benign? Maybe. Deeply troubling? Possibly. Licence fee payers’ number one requirement from the BBC is that it should entertain them, and it’s far from clear that ministers or civil servants have a better idea of how to deliver distinctive entertainment than the people at the BBC. There is much work still to be done.

Armando Iannucci is a satirist, writer, television director and radio producer

Well, the good news is we’re well away from last summer’s anti-BBC shouting. The most draconian suggestions aired last year - cutting the BBC down to size, closing down networks, selling off stations - had all gone. But a lot of damage has been done to our TV industry by the prolonged uncertainty whipped up along the way. The priority now is to repair that damage, and go out and sell the BBC to the international market. Encourage it to make money from its content abroad, which can be plugged back into production at home.

That means persuading the government to change its public attitude to the BBC. If the corporation is as wonderful as the white paper says it is, then ministers need to show they believe it. You can’t praise BBC drama in one breath, but then denigrate those who make it as “leftwing luvvies” in another. If you support the content, you need to support the people responsible for it.

The Thick Of It
The Thick Of It Photograph: BBC/Mike Hogan/BBC

Diane Coyle is an economist and former deputy chair of the BBC Trust

The erosion of the BBC’s independence has been under way for years: the inexcusably rushed and non-transparent licence fee settlement last year; repeated top-slicing of licence fee funds; the classification of the BBC as part of general government spending; and the frequent requests for appearances at parliamentary committees. It is not much comfort that the white paper could have been worse. It still marks a further erosion of BBC independence. Highest profile is the question of how many board members the government can appoint, which Tony Hall has rightly indicated is not settled. This government has placed supporters in every senior public appointment; and it is now unlikely any government will restore the former non-partisan appointments process.

There will be a five-year “health check” on BBC performance. What chance politicians will not use this as an opportunity for more top-slicing for pet projects? The new charter must also set clear limits on the National Audit Office’s oversight of BBC activities to protect editorial independence, and it should report to the BBC board, not to parliament. What will the “guidance” to Ofcom about the distinctiveness of the BBC’s output say, exactly? How will Ofcom and the BBC engage with each other in practice?

Above all, what will the process for renewing and setting the licence fee (or subsequent funding methods) be? The BBC should be more transparent about how it spends its funds, but the government also needs to commit to an orderly and open debate about BBC funding. Licence fee payers overwhelmingly want the level decided independently. At a minimum there must be a proper process.

Michael Foster is an agent to BBC stars such as Chris Evans and a founder of Creative Access

The BBC is in a very good position to absorb the pretty hard and spot on, body blows inflicted by the white paper’s demands for greater diversity and in its offer to the Bame community who are presently very poorly served by the licence fee.

Tony Hall and James Harding have acted over the past two years in anticipation of what they realised would be expected of the BBC at charter renewal in terms of diversity following its appalling inaction on diversity under Greg Dyke and Mark Thompson.

All of the BBC ancien regime’s HR team has been pushed aside in the past two years, a diversity team with real bite and spending power has been put in place and over 60 BAME graduate interns taken on within the last year. More BAME interns alongside the normal intake will come this year and next and an apprenticeship scheme for BAME school leavers will also change socio-economic diversity in an organisation where over 65% of the workforce have degrees (the norm in British industry is 28%). It will not be until these BAME youngsters assume positions of executive power over commissioning and casting that we as a society will see the real long-term effects of these changes. Meanwhile these internal actions and Sir Lenny Henry’s external campaign have been instrumental in driving more investment in productions by BAME companies and many more BAME people fronting drama, entertainment and news. Independent companies who supply programmes to the BBC will be from 2017 mandated to employ many more Bame members of staff in a scheme copied from the very successful Channel 4 two tick system.

David Puttnam is the former deputy chairman of Channel 4, who is chairing an inquiry into public service broadcasting

While the more apocalyptic predictions may not have been realised, there’s still a need to remain vigilant about threats to the BBC’s independence, as well as its ability long term to operate as a universal public service broadcaster. The most pressing issue is that the proposals for appointments to the new unitary board mean government appointees will, for the first time, sit at the heart of the BBC’s operational and editorial decision-making structures.

I’m particularly troubled by this in the light of recent situations in which a number of European governments have been able to place undue pressure on public broadcasters specifically through the appointments process.

I’d like to see an appointments process that is not contaminated by the possibility of “political or personal patronage”, the phrase used by the former commissioner for public appointments, Sir David Normington, when setting out his own concerns.

It’s also vital that Ofcom has a remit explicitly recognising the BBC’s unique position as a universal public service broadcaster, one that prevents rivals from vexatiously calling for sanctions because the BBC is being insufficiently “distinctive” – a word that rather chillingly recurs throughout the white paper. The paper also rejects the proposal that the licence fee should be set by an independent body, but I remain unconvinced that limited parliamentary scrutiny will ever be sufficient to make the process fully transparent. Finally, I’m concerned by any diminution of the public purpose on “technological innovation”. The BBC has a strong record in this area, and it would be a huge loss to both licence payers and the industry if the BBC was not tasked with developing new technologies that could operate in the broad public interest.

Jimmy Mulville is a comedian, comedy writer, producer and TV presenter who co-founded Hat Trick Productions

The white paper appears to more of a white flag waved by a minister who underestimated the love both the industry and public have for the BBC. As a result there is no question that the BBC has emerged largely unscathed from this charter review. For that I think the creative community within the television industry and public alike will be grateful. Ironically I think the overtly aggressive and bullying position assumed by the increasingly ludicrous John Whittingdale backfired. He overplayed his hand, quickly showing himself to be a playground bully.

The recommendation that high salaries be published is an interesting one. It speaks to the current increased antipathy towards the wealthy. We all know that the public generally think television people are over-paid egomaniacs. Is this move to “out” the big earners a plot to shame both the talent and the BBC to accept less after the ensuing predictable Daily Mail outrage?

The great thing to come out of this review is that the question of the licence fee has been shelved for a decade. Everyone needs to start seeing this comparatively small charge as a great deal for the audience. At 42p a day for all its radio, television and online services the BBC is still the best value for money on the broadcasting landscape. It’s a failing of generations of BBC management that this message is not seared into the public consciousness. We should stop calling this a public tax and see it as an annual insurance payment against the loss of our possibly most important cultural asset.

But what does the call for more distinctive content mean? Is this another way of telling the BBC not to compete with its commercial rivals? If so this should be resisted. The BBC keeps everyone else honest. It has to be able to commission not just niche programming which no one else would touch, but also big crowd pleasers against which the rest have to measure themselves. Now that the the Sword of Whittingdale has been removed from above its head, let’s hope our BBC can flourish in a more certain future.

2012 Olympics
2012 Olympics Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Roger Mosey is a former controller of BBC Radio 5 Live and head of BBC Television News

The most obvious bear-trap in the coming weeks is the EU referendum. The BBC has made a confident start – it’s being accused, if anything, of being too impartial – but if the polls remain close then the pressure will grow. I’d be keeping a keen eye on the audience debate programmes which can easily go wrong, and especially the grandiose Wembley event close to polling day. Then there could be further tests of impartiality around any government changes or the future of the opposition, where the BBC – like much of the rest of the media – has struggled with the Corbyn phenomenon. Not forgetting, of course, the American election in which explaining the inexplicable Trump will not be easy.

Though special programmes are helping shake up stale schedules in peak hours, the BBC should be planning to refresh its programming – especially on BBC1. It’s time to lead some of the old warhorses out to pasture. But I’m worried about the challenges facing BBC Studios: this is going to be difficult to make work for a whole variety of structural and creative reasons. I’m also unconvinced about “compete and compare” in radio, where the old model wasn’t broken so there was no need to fix it.

Finally, I hope the biggest opportunity for the BBC will be in the Olympics and Euro 2016 where they can show that nobody beats them in sports coverage – and audiences will again unite around those huge events.

• The following footnote was appended to this article on 9 June 2016: After this article was published, the BBC contacted us to say “The BBC categorically denies that this quote is accurate”.

Media staff

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