Critics of Tory reforms fear for independence of BBC

Conservative White Paper likely to include cuts to funding and new scheduling rules

The Conservative government faces a revolt in the House of Lords – and on the streets of Britain – if planned reforms threaten the BBC’s independence, a cross-party group of peers has warned.

The peers, led by former Conservative minister Norman Fowler, Labour's Waheed Alli and the Liberal Democrat Anthony Lester yesterday unveiled a draft Bill to curb government influence over the BBC.

The move comes ahead of the publication on Thursday of a White Paper outlining the government’s proposals for the BBC’s next 10-year charter.

Leaks to the media suggest culture secretary John Whittingdale is considering a reduction in funding, rules preventing popular BBC shows competing with commercial rivals, and a new governance structure.


A number of winners at Sunday’s Bafta television awards used their acceptance speeches to defend the corporation and warn against moves that could curtail its editorial independence.

Fowler said on Monday that the White Paper must protect the BBC’s core mission to inform, educate and entertain and he criticised the system whereby the corporation’s charter must be renegotiated and renewed every 10 years.

Royal charter

“The government should put its proposals to parliamentary debate and vote. The worst aspect of the royal charter is that it puts all the power in the hands of whatever government happens to be in power.

“This Bill would provide a check on government power and the hope must be even without this Bill the government would agree to putting its proposals to parliament so they can not only be debated but put to the vote,” he said.

The BBC’s critics and rivals, including newspapers as well as commercial broadcasters, complain that the corporation uses its almost £4 billion in guaranteed licence fee revenue to crush competition.

Among the proposals believed to be under consideration in the White Paper is a requirement for the BBC to use part of its licence fee income to subsidise commercial producers of children’s programmes.

Another would require the BBC to publish the fees paid to all of its stars, a move the corporation says would enable its rivals to poach top presenters.

Whittingdale is reported to be considering replacing the BBC Trust with a new executive board, a number of whose members would be appointed by the government.

Actor Richard Wilson, one of a number of television stars to join the peers at yesterday's event, said he was willing to march on the streets in defence of the BBC. "I hope the government will be forced into one of their many U-turns – they are very good at them these days. I don't think they realise how strong the public feeling is for the BBC," he said.


Among the most controversial proposals to be floated is one that would prevent the BBC from scheduling popular shows such as

Strictly Come Dancin

g or news programmes at the same time as similar shows on commercial television.

EastEnders actor Ross Kemp said the British public was not yet aware of the threat that the White Paper could represent but once people knew the details, they would march in defence of the corporation and its independence.

“The notion that politicians are going to interfere in the scheduling of what is one of the greatest British institutions and respected around the world is just ludicrous. They have no place to be involved in it and it would destroy any notion of it being independent,” he said.