LONDON >> The Conservative government in Britain has set its sights on remaking the BBC, the broadcaster supported by a national license fee, after a political campaign in which the Conservatives complained that the BBC’s news coverage has a left-wing bias.
On Thursday, the government’s secretary of state for culture, media and sport, John Whittingdale, presented a "green paper" to Parliament, the opening of a comprehensive study of the BBC’s future, suggesting that the corporation could become smaller, less costly and less competitive with British newspapers and private television channels.
The BBC, which is financed by an annual payment of 145.50 pounds, or $227.50, from nearly every household that owns a color television or that can watch television in real time, is up for its 10-year charter review next year. Whittingdale, a known critic of the corporation, said he wanted to examine the nature, funding, reach and governance of the corporation, considered one of the finest, if not necessarily the most efficient, broadcasting networks in the world.
"With so much more choice in what to consume and how to consume it, we must at least question whether the BBC should try to be all things to all people, to serve everyone over every platform or if it should have a more precisely targeted mission," Whittingdale told Parliament.
The review would look at how the BBC is financed, the scale of its output and whether it needs tougher oversight by a new regulatory body, replacing the much-criticized BBC Trust, he said. It would also include a period of consultation with the public.
The fight is ideological and philosophical, as well as political. The BBC was founded more than 90 years ago as a state broadcaster with a mission to "inform, educate and entertain." Some believe that the BBC has become much more than a broadcaster – running a news service on the Web that rivals newspapers, for example – and competing too avidly with private companies to create popular entertainment of the lowest common denominator, both on radio and television, while paying its top talent salaries that dwarf those of the most senior government officials.
There have also been parliamentary hearings into large severance packages the corporation awarded to senior management in what was meant to be an effort at cost-cutting.
Those on the right believe that the BBC is biased toward London and the left. Many on both the left and the right believe that the BBC is too afraid to offend anyone and takes "political correctness" to an absurd degree.
In other words, critics believe that "Auntie," as the BBC is sometimes affectionately known, should stick to her knitting – documentaries, middlebrow programming, "objective" broadcast news, filling niche segments and gaps in the market that profit-driven companies would never bother to fill.
Or as Whittingdale suggested, "The BBC, as a public institution, should not have the same imperatives as commercial companies, such as trying to maximize audience share."
He distinguished between programs the BBC itself creates and those it competes with other companies to buy, like "The Voice," a singing talent show, in order to counter a similar program on the private network ITV and improve ratings.
Others, of course, believe that competition from the BBC produces better programming and content all around.
But there is no question that the BBC is a huge operation, employing close to 19,000 people and with an annual budget of about 4.8 billion pounds ($7.5 billion).
George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer, noted that the BBC News website "is a good product, but it is becoming a bit more imperial in its ambitions," he said, "crowding out national newspapers."
Most of Britain’s newspapers are on the right and support the Conservatives and have complained about the BBC’s move into nonbroadcast news reporting.
As for financing, with the increase in people watching television programs after broadcast on devices that are not televisions, like computers and smartphones or tablets, the government wants to study whether the current license fee should remain and increase with inflation, or whether there should be a subscription model, or some hybrid. For instance, the BBC is proud of its iPlayer, which allows viewers to see programs already broadcast for a set period of time without cost; some suggest that the BBC should charge for such broadcasts, as iTunes does.
Another suggestion in the green paper is for a core BBC that is free and a premium BBC that is paid. Another is that the license fee simply be applied to every household as a universal levy.
There has been a major controversy over a deal that the BBC should pay for license fees for anyone older than 75, a bill previously pushed by the government and estimated at 750 million pounds, or $1.1 billion – a boon to the government and a real-term cut to BBC funding of between 10 percent to 15 percent.
Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, went along with the idea in return, he said, for assurances that the license fee would remain and would increase in line with inflation – it has been unchanged since 2010. For those so inclined, the license for a black and white television costs only 49 pounds.
But Hall has been criticized for giving up too much to the government by agreeing to absorb part of the state’s budget, and committing to spending that the corporation cannot control in an aging population. Hall has defended the deal as necessary and said he would ask older citizens who can afford the license fee to pay it regardless.
As for the larger changes suggested in the green paper, the BBC said in a statement that it would fight them, while praising itself as "a creative and economic powerhouse for Britain." The green paper, the BBC said, "would appear to herald a much diminished, less popular, BBC. That would be bad for Britain and would not be the BBC that the public has known and loved for over 90 years."
As part of its defense, the BBC admitted to having organized a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron against any changes from some well-known actors and personalities, including Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, J.K. Rowling, Mark Rylance and David Attenborough. The letter called the broadcaster "the envy of the world" and said, "A diminished BBC would simply mean a diminished Britain."
The government has also criticized the BBC’s commercial ventures, including BBC Worldwide, which sells programs abroad. But Hall argued that it made the corporation 226.5 million pounds last year.
The government has appointed a panel of eight people to work on the renewal of the BBC’s charter. Some of the group come from commercial broadcasting, and the former chairman of the BBC Trust, Christopher Patten, called the panel "a team of assistant gravediggers" appointed to help Whittingdale "bury the BBC that we love."