Govt 'genuinely open-minded' on BBC and Channel 4 plan 'not culture war'

Minister denies 'culture war' on public service broadcasting as BBC and Channel 4 reforms loom

Culture minister Julia Lopez at a parliamentary committee hearing on 7 June 2022

The Government is “genuinely open-minded” about the future of the BBC funding model despite the Culture Secretary’s “serious concerns” about the licence fee, a minister told the House of Lords on Tuesday.

Culture minister Julia Lopez also insisted the controversial drive towards privatisation of Channel 4 was “not some kind of culture war” but rather “about valuing public service broadcast”.

Lopez told the Communications and Digital Committee that its coverage of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations and the war in Ukraine were two recent examples of what the BBC does best.

She said the jubilee coverage was an “absolutely fantastic, world class piece of broadcast” and praised the BBC’s reporting from Ukraine for its “commitment to truth, impartiality, high-quality journalism, facts and its ability because it’s a trusted broadcaster to have impact not just in this domestic audience but on a global stage”.

“I think those two pieces of coverage really tell us something about what we should be seeking to preserve for the BBC going into the future,” Lopez said.

She warned that, currently, the BBC is in danger of “diluting” this type of broadcasting, which she said is what “makes it distinct”.

“If the BBC seeks to deliver everything for everyone it risks diluting what it needs to do in the future,” Lopez said.

The committee hearing on the future funding of the BBC came after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced that the licence fee will be frozen for the next two years and a new financing model will be sought before the current licence fee period ends in 2027.

Lopez said: “The Government is genuinely open-minded about the right model and we are seeking for somebody to surface the choices open to any government about the right way of funding the BBC. And we are doing that in advancement of 2027 so that when we look at what we seek the BBC to achieve post-2027 we have a sense of how the best way of funding that will be.”

Listing the problems of the licence fee, Lopez said it is “challenged by the technological revolution”, “regressive that you pay the same regardless of your circumstances”, and expensive to administer.

Lopez added: “…while the Secretary of State has made clear her own position having serious concerns about the licence fee, she also said she is open-minded to what the right model is and if the review comes back and suggests that these are the pros and cons of other models and on balance the licence fee is better, I don’t think she would entirely dismiss that.”

Lopez revealed that the Government expects to choose an independent reviewer to undertake a review of the BBC’s funding model before the parliamentary summer recess.

She also added they were expecting to make a decision regarding the funding “as part of the charter review process” but they aren’t able to give a “cast iron guarantee” on when that will be.

Regarding the BBC World Service, which the DCMS and Foreign Office gave an additional £4.1m in March to produce trusted content about the war in Ukraine amid increasing Russian disinformation, Lopez said: “I wouldn’t be in any doubt of the importance that the UK Government places on that soft power projection from the BBC World Service.

“I have to be careful because the BBC is fundamentally an independent institution but, given the work that it was doing in Ukraine and some of the cost pressures that [were] introduced, we wanted to acknowledge that by providing further budget… to be able to support the incredibly important work that they were doing in Ukraine and I think that should be seen as a mark of the value that we place on the organisation not just as a journalistic force but as an important democratic tool for the world.”

Questioned about the “contradiction” that the Government decided to privatise Channel 4 despite an “overwhelming” consultation in which 96% of respondents objected to the plan, Lopez said: “The Government is still within its rights to come to a different view than the one expressed by the majority to those who have responded to a consultation.

“We as ministers have a responsibility to look at a whole range of questions and the fundamental one we look at in relation to Channel 4 was what is the best thing for the sustainability of the public service broadcasting sector… and we came to the conclusion that the way in which Channel 4 was structured is a future impediment to it being a successful business.”

Ms Lopez continued: “There is a number of questions in the broadcasting sector that have been bobbing around for quite some time, one of them is whether the licence fee is the right way of funding the BBC, another is how do we make sure broadcasters are relevant in the digital age, and whether Channel 4 in public hands is the best model for the sustainability of that business… I fundamentally believe in the importance of public service broadcasting. I think it adds great value to this nation economically, democratically and culturally, and I want to take decisions that sustain that sector.

“This is not some kind of culture war, I think this is about valuing public service broadcast.”

Additional reporting by PA Media

Picture: Parliament TV

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