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BBC must remain independent, warns Oxford University Chancellor

03 May 2016

The BBC must be allowed to retain independence and avoid government ‘smash-and-grab raids’ on its licence fee, said Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of the University of Oxford and former Chair of the BBC Trust, in an impassioned defence of the public service broadcaster.Lord Patten made the call as he mounted a sturdy case for the BBC’s independence in a lecture on the future of the organisation hosted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on May 3. He warned politicians to remember that while they represent the people who own the BBC, they do not own it themselves.

“The BBC must report to Parliament about its performance, but it must answer to the public when things go wrong.” Ahead of the forthcoming Royal Charter review, Lord Patten urged two priorities – that the link between Charter renewal and fixed term parliaments be broken by a one-off eleven or twelve year Charter, and that the public have the chance to influence debate and decisions. “The public pay for the BBC and the very least they deserve is a proper chance to influence the debate about what it will cost and what they will get for their money. Describing the BBC as ‘one of this country’s greatest institutions’ and ‘a core part of our civic humanism and of our shared, multi-ethnic and multi-racial, citizenship…underpinned by a common set of British values’, he attacked politicians and members of the press for focusing so much criticism on a rare British success story. “Britain has a crippling lack of affordable housing; a strikingly sub-optimal secondary education system; a health service into which government after government pours more cash without ever, it seems, satisfying either medical staff or patients; a low productivity, low wage workforce: all these problems and more warrant urgent political attention. But why obsess about something Britain already does strikingly well, something other countries envy us for, something the public enjoys and trusts us to do well?” Attacking politicians for ‘grabbing easy headlines at the BBC’s expense’, as well as the media organisations who print the criticism, he voiced accusations of scaremongering in the misguided name of public interest, and eroding confidence at the BBC to develop ambitious programming. “Where are these constituencies where the voters worry more about the BBC than they do about having a job, or getting a home, or putting food on the plate? I can tell you the answer: they don’t exist. No-one actually lives there. Like Old Sarum, they are rotten boroughs with grandiloquent names. Old Murdoch; Great Dacre-upon-Thames; Lesser Desmond.” Lord Patten consistently voiced his belief that the BBC is well-supported by the British Public. Citing a public consultation launched by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in July 2015, in which 81 per cent said that the BBC serves its national and international audiences well, Lord Patten criticised the Government’s response: “It’s clear there are absolutely no grounds, other than uninformed ideology, on which the Government could conclude that the BBC needs to be cut further down to size. “The audience wants to keep the BBC pretty much just as it is. That must stick in Mr Whittingdale’s craw, because – if you want to make your mark as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport…your best chance of being remembered is to mess about with the BBC. What would take real statesmanship is to leave it alone.” Lord Patten described the organisation as a ‘comparatively small player’, dwarfed by multinational platforms like BskyB, Apple and Google. In world of quickly shifting media and technology, he described the BBC as a ‘unique cultural force’ and a ‘principal pillar of the UK’s creative economy’. “It is perhaps unpalatable to some critics, but when ICM asked people across the UK to put the BBC’s purposes in order of importance they said clearly that first they wanted a BBC that entertains, as well as informing and educating us all. At its best the BBC manages to do all three at once.” He admitted that his own time at the BBC convinced him that in the modern UK, he needed to be not a ‘one-nation Tory’, but a ‘four-nation Tory’, and warned that no other broadcaster represented Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England so comprehensively. “Whether you live in Orkney or Osterley, Portsmouth or Portrush, Stockton or Swansea, everyone pays the same licence fee and they deserve equally to see their own communities and interests and concerns and achievements on their BBC. “Frankly, they will see them on no other broadcaster, because the market will not provide.” Turning to governance Lord Patten stressed the need for greater safeguards for BBC independence, saying the envisaged Unitary Board with a majority of non-executives appointed by government would be unacceptable: “Let me be clear. A team of non-executives, all put in place by the government of the day, would be simply unacceptable.” Instead he put forward an idea for a new Commission ‘to guarantee the independence not just of the BBC but of all broadcasting’, which would appoint the Chair and non-executive directors of the BBC, recommend and publish proposals for future levels of BBC funding and appoint the Chair and deputy chair of regulatory body Ofcom: Lord Patten emphasised the importance of the BBC as a publically funded and independent body which must be free from government influence. “Such a Commission would make it much more difficult for future governments to raid the licence fee. It would put at least a little more distance between an ever more powerful Ofcom and the government of the day. And it would avoid a BBC board overpopulated with Government appointees.”

Lord Patten was speaking at a lecture, The Future of the BBC, hosted by the Reuters Institute at St Anne’s College, the University of Oxford on May 3.