White Paper: A public service for all: the BBC in the digital age - BECTU response
24 April 2006
- BECTU is the trade union for workers (other than performers and journalists) in the audiovisual sector, including the BBC. Large numbers of our members work for the BBC as staff and many of our freelance members work for the BBC on a regular basis. [The following is BECTU's response to the BBC White Paper]
The BBC's purposes
- We continue to support the BBC's original Objectives ie that it should 'inform, educate and entertain'. As indicated in our response to the Green Paper, we also support the more specific six public purposes proposed for the BBC (para 3.1.4) together with the five characteristics (3.1.9) distinguishing the BBC's content from anyone else's.
- We believe that these characteristics of content (high quality; challenging; original; innovative; engaging) give force to the argument that the BBC will continue to require a critical mass of in-house production to guarantee output of this range and quality. We fear that the Director General's current programme of cuts and redundancies, together with the proposed WOCC, may jeopardise this.
- We further believe that the BBC should never surrender the aim of universal provision for a mass audience. We therefore agree that 'Entertainment is a vital part of the BBC's mission' (3.1.6) which 'should involve competing with other broadcasters on grounds of quality' (3.1.7) and that the BBC's distinctiveness 'does not mean that it should only provide types of programmes that others do not' (3.1.8). The Corporation's continued vitality rests on its ability to attract a mass audience with programmes of quality.
- We welcome the proposal that the Trust will need to consult widely on its new 'purpose remits' both with licence payers and with other interested parties, specifically including trade unions (3.1.21).
- Under the proposed purpose of promoting education and learning, we note the specific reference to the BBC Creative Archive (3.3.2). While we are in no-way opposed to the Archive in principle, we believe it is important that the rights of individual creators (such as writers, directors and designers), whose works may be actually or potentially made available through the archive, should be respected. In publicising the Archive, we also believe that the BBC should take the opportunity to explain the importance of copyright to the public (ie how it benefits creativity and culture) and should present creators' copyright as a facilitator of use rather than (as sometimes appears to be implied) an inhibitor.
- Under the proposed purpose of stimulating creativity and cultural excellence, we specifically support the recommendation that 'the BBC should put together a film investment strategy to ensure that the best UK films are shown to a wider television audience' (3.4.1) and that the BBC Charter and Agreement 'will require the BBC Trust to include a film strategy in its plans for achieving the creative and cultural purpose.' (3.4.5). We believe that a programme of investing in British film and offering an outlet on television will benefit both the BBC and the British film industry.
- We certainly support the proposed purpose of reflecting the UK's nations, regions and communities.
- In respect of diversity, we support 'the on-air portrayal of ethnic minorities, those with disabilities and those from other minorities in mainstream as well as specialist programmes' (3.5.1). We would also want the Corporation to confirm a commitment to the increasing employment of minorities within its staff and freelance workforce, specifically including senior and managerial roles.
- In respect of programming for 'multi-faith Britain', we believe that adequate time and prominence should also be given to secular and humanist views and that religious views should not be protected from vigorous criticism.
- We support the aim of an 'expanding...contribution to regional programming' and 'providing a larger amount of dedicated programming in and for each of the devolved nations' (3.5.1). It is right, therefore, that the BBC should increase its network commissioning from the regions and nations (3.5.6).
- On S4C, we support the aim of a 'sustainable future for Welsh language television' and accept that 'S4C's relationship with the BBC will be important' in this respect (3.5.1). We recognise the increased funding pressure on S4C beyond digital switchover and believe this should be accommodated through additional public funding directly from DCMS.
- On the World Service, we regret the closure of a number of vernacular services but specifically welcome the development of television as well as radio services.
Building a digital Britain
- As indicated in our response to the Green Paper, we fully support the BBC's 'leading role in making digital switchover happen' (4.3.1) - by extending the digital network, informing the public and helping the most vulnerable TV viewers.
- We believe this aspect of the BBC's role will continue, beyond switchover. We therefore support the aim that 'the BBC should continue to play a leading role in technological development, and in leading audiences to new ways of receiving content' (4.1.4) and we agree that 'the BBC needs the flexibility to deliver its programmes and other content in new ways as technology develops' (4.1.7).
- In respect of radio, we endorse the statement that 'We welcome the BBC's investment in and promotion of digital radio, and believe that the BBC should continue its role in this area'. (4.4.2).
Service licences and the public value test
- We note the proposals for service licences and for a public value test for new BBC services and significant changes to existing services. We accept that the context in which these will apply is that over the lifetime of the next Charter 'The BBC will need the flexibility to adapt to the changing landscape' (5.1.1.) and 'will face the challenge to modify the range of services its provides in order to respond to, and often lead, changes in technology, culture and audience behaviour' (5.3.1.).
- Our concerns in this area are specific and focus on the proposed role for Ofcom in conducting market impact assessments for new services (as proposed in the Green Paper) and for changes to existing services as well (as is now proposed in the White Paper). As indicated in our response to the Green Paper and now amplified by the increased role proposed for Ofcom, we are wary of introducing an external regulator (not nearly as publicly accountable as the BBC) into this process. We believe the involvement of Ofcom may introduce confusion and at worst the self-interest of commercial broadcasters into BBC strategic decisions. We are not convinced that the creation of a joint Trust/Ofcom steering group to oversee this work fully addresses these concerns.
- We are pleased to note that the White Paper recognises the BBC's strongly beneficial role in the UK broadcasting sector: 'it is unique, adds value in its own right and has undoubtedly helped to set the high standards of quality for which UK broadcasting is rightly renowned' (6.1.2). It is already, as the Paper acknowledges, subject to a strong regulatory framework with respect to competition - by means of competition law, the Office of Fair Trading and the BBC's own fair trading regime.
- Despite this, the White Paper goes on to recommend a series of additional regulatory measures in this area - a new duty in the BBC Charter to have regard to competition issues; a reform of the fair trading regime; new ex ante codes (drawn up in consultation with Ofcom) in addition to the current ex post regulatory framework; and a new fair trading complaints regime.
- These measures in our view, represent an excessive level of concern to protect the interests of commercial competitors to the BBC. No justifying evidence is put forward in the White Paper itself - other than references to 'concerns' (6.1.6 and 6.1.10) and a list of 'potential areas of concern' (6.1.13). There is no specific and significant evidence of actual instances of harm arising from the BBC's activities.
- Unlike UK commercial broadcasters, the BBC is a world-class organisation. It sets a benchmark, which raises the standards of our broadcasting sector as a whole. It cannot - unlike most of its commercial competitors - be subject to changes of ownership and foreign takeover. The BBC does not, in our view, require increased regulation to protect commercial competitors - certainly not without detailed supporting evidence of actual (as opposed to hypothetical) instances of harmful behaviour. We urge a reconsideration of these proposals and of the increased role proposed for Ofcom in contributing to BBC regulation.
- The Green Paper and the White Paper have acknowledged that 'the BBC should continue to relieve pressure on the licence fee by generating commercial income' and 'should seek to maximise commercial revenue in appropriate areas, to reinvest in programming and talent to the benefit of licence fee payers' (7.1.2). It is also acknowledged that there is a widespread view that 'commercial services must not be prioritised at the expense of the core duties of public service' (7.1.3). We accept and agree with both these lines of argument.
- We accept the proposed transfer of responsibilities in this area to the Trust and we support the development of safeguards to provide information on internal transfers of money between different parts of the BBC and specifically to ensure 'there should be no cross subsidy from the BBC's public services to its commercial activities' (7.1.7).
Production and organisation
- We welcome the statement that 'We remain fully committed to this vision of a BBC of scale and scope for the forthcoming Charter period' (8.1.2) and of the restatement of 'a clear principle that the BBC needs to maintain a significant base of in-house production to sustain its wider public contribution.' (8.2.1).
- We note, however, that the White Paper endorses the BBC's proposed Window of Creative Competition (the WOCC) and in effect, thereby, an extension of independent production in the BBC well above the current minimum 25% independent quota.
- In our submission to the Green Paper consultation we set out at some length our arguments in favour of retaining a strong in-house production base and our criticisms of the independent sector. While not wishing to repeat these arguments here, we retain these views. In particular, we retain the view that an 'uncritical view of the independents is now a well-established characteristic of DCMS and of successive regulators' and that 'the value of the in-house production base (which, once taken below a critical mass, would be very hard to recreate) is undervalued, under-examined and under-appreciated in a debate which seems to operate on terms set by the independents.'
- We therefore remain strongly of the view that 'the WOCC will be harmful rather than helpful to the future of the BBC'.
- We find the analysis put forward by the Work Foundation in its report 'The Tipping Point' persuasive. We note their view that 'in the long term the BBC risks a serious hollowing-out as a creative organisation by a rapidly growing and keenly empowered independent sector who will be obliged to poach its talent because of the paucity of its own training, while driving a hard bargain over both programme provision and re-use of content in service provision'. A long list of recent departures of senior BBC staff to the independent sector gives force to this argument.
- We therefore believe the playing field is already tilted not in favour of the BBC (as is implied by support of the WOCC) but against it.
- We further believe that the WOCC will bring an unnecessary level of complexity to the BBC's operations - opening the prospect of wasteful transaction costs and bureaucracy reminiscent of the earlier and discredited policy of Producer Choice.
- We further note that the White Paper, in referring to the independent quota, indicates the possibility of 'future changes in the level of the quota' (8.2.4). In line with Ofcom's Production Sector Review, we see no case for an increase in the independent quota and would support the maintenance of the quota at its present level.
- On radio, we welcome the White Paper's acknowledgement that the BBC has consistently exceeded the voluntary 10% quota and that 'making the voluntary quota binding in itself would serve little purpose' (8.3.2). We therefore see no justification in placing on the Trust 'an overall duty of ensuring that independent radio producers have the opportunity to contribute fully to the BBC's provision of the best possible programmes for listeners' (8.3.3) nor for the prospect of the Trust setting a voluntary quota of 'at least the existing level'. No equivalent requirements are placed on commercial radio broadcasters and they have made no comparable contribution to the promotion of independent production.
- On training, we welcome the White Paper's recognition of the BBC's enormous contribution to the whole sector and the statement that 'the Charter and Agreement will provide for the BBC to continue to invest in training on a significant scale'(8.5.1). We also note with approval the White Paper's support and encouragement for the BBC's involvement in the development of sector-wide training strategies in conjunction with Skillset.
- On technological research, we welcome the White Paper's statement that 'the BBC has a key role to play as a 'centre of excellence for the whole broadcasting industry' (8.6.1) and that 'the Government looks to the BBC to build on these past successes and maintain its position as a risk-taker and world leader in this field'. (8.6.2)
- On regional production, we support in principle the shifting of some production out of London. However, we believe it is vital that this is undertaken only in line with good employment practice (ie consultation in advance and no compulsory redundancies or relocations) and that the aim should be to achieve a degree of genuine geographic dispersal around the UK rather than a focus on 1 or 2 centres outside London. It will of course still be necessary, in our view, to retain a critical mass of in-house production in London.
The BBC Trust and Executive Board
- We support, in principle, the replacement of the Board of Governors with a BBC Trust and separate Executive Board and we particularly welcome the 'unprecedented obligation to openness and transparency'. We welcome the provision of adequate resources for the Trust, including its own dedicated support staff and access to its own legal advice and external expertise (9.3.7).
- We note the Government's view that the Trust will not be a representative body (other than in respect of national representation) and that 'it will need people with the right expertise, including in the broadcasting and media industries'. We continue to hold the view that the Trust should be representative of the country as a whole, including in particular, representation from among those who work in or for the BBC.
- We remain wary of the potential for a gradually increasing role for Ofcom in regulating the BBC - on grounds of its strong regulatory basis in the commercial broadcasting sector, of its (comparative to the BBC) lack of public accountability and of the potential confusion of regulatory roles as between the Trust and Ofcom. We therefore welcome the decision to avoid any immediate redistribution of regulatory responsibilities and would argue that this should remain the case into the foreseeable future.
- Similarly, we welcome the view that 'untrammelled extension of NAO (National Audit Office) access would risk encroaching on the BBC's editorial independence and conflict with the principle that the main line of accountability should run directly to the licence fee payer' (9.10.2). We remain wary of the more limited proposed extension of the NAO's role in relation to the BBC.
- We welcome the acknowledgement that the licence fee is 'the best way to fund the BBC' (10.5.1) and the confirmation 'that the licence fee will continue for the lifetime of the next Charter' (10.5.1). We further welcome the statement that 'we propose no changes to the existing range of concessions' (10.1.4).
- On the level of the licence fee, we acknowledge that this will be set in the forthcoming settlement outside of the White Paper process. We note the BBC's detailed case for a settlement of RPI + 2.3% per year in order to deliver its comprehensive service commitments together with its leading digital role, its commitment to reduce repeats and its planned relocation of significant amounts of production outside of London. We further note that this calculation is based on significant 'self help' measures including efficiency cost-reductions, a growth in licence fee collection, enhanced commercial revenue and (in our view regrettably), a programme of redundancies and sell-offs.
- In our view the licence fee settlement should, in the light of the wide range of responsibilities and commitments placed on the BBC, match broadcasting-sector inflation and should therefore be set at a level above RPI. We believe that the self-interested views of commercial broadcasters arguing for a lesser settlement should be given close scrutiny rather than accepted at face value.
- On the future of the licence fee, we note with concern the stated intention to 'review the scope for alternative funding mechanisms after the end of the next Charter in 2016' and to undertake this 'around the end of digital switchover' (10.5.3). We retain the view, as expressed in our response to the Green Paper, that a review on this timescale would be premature and would bring unnecessary instability to the BBC at a key time in digital transition. We continue to believe that there will be adequate scope for such a debate to the natural cycle of Charter Renewal.
The future of public service broadcasting
- We welcome the White Paper's statement that 'The BBC is and will remain at the heart of public service television broadcasting in the UK'. We further support the statement that 'sustaining a plurality of PSB providers who both complement and compete with each other has been important in ensuring that this quality and diversity are maintained' (11.1.1).
- We referred, in our Green Paper response, to our broader views on the future funding of our PSB system - including our opposition to 'top-slicing' of the licence fee and to our preference for a levy on the turnover of non-PSB providers such as BSkyB and, in the future, possibly telecom and internet service companies.
- We, therefore, do not favour the proposed review, within the next Charter period, of the case for public funding - including licence fee money - to be distributed more widely beyond the BBC (11.1.4). We believe future PSB funding can continue to be explored and debated without the need for a destabilising mid-Charter review and we do not, in any event, see the justification for any particular focus on redistribution of licence fee income. This is merely one possibility among others, including the levy on non-PSB providers.
- On Channel 4, we note the intention to consider the issue of the Channel's capital switchover costs within the licence fee settlement. Our own view is that - as long as adequate funding for the BBC's own internal needs is provided within the settlement - we would support the BBC providing financial assistance for Channel 4 (as a non-commercial PSB broadcaster) for this purpose.
- As in our response to the Green Paper, we welcome many of the White Paper's proposals - including the renewal of the Charter for 10 years with the licence fee as the basic method of funding and the replacement of the Board of Governors with the BBC Trust. However, we retain a range of concerns - especially in relation to the proposed WOCC and to the proposed interim reviews on alternative BBC funding mechanisms and the redistribution of public funding for PSB. We look forward to continued participation in the debate on the Charter renewal.
Last updated 12 November 2006