Culture secretary Ben Bradshaw launched a sustained attack against the BBC Trust, the corporation’s governing body, last night saying it was not “sustainable in the long term”.
Bradshaw used his first high-profile address since succeeding Andy Burnham as culture secretary in June to launch a broadside in which he raised the prospect of the BBC Trust being replaced and said the BBC had “probably has reached the limits of reasonable expansion”‘.
In a strongly-worded keynote speech at the Royal Television Society’s conference in Cambridge last night Bradshaw said there was a case for a smaller licence fee as he professed to having concerns about the regulatory structure of the BBC.
He said: “Although the Trust has performed better than its predecessor, I don’t think it is a sustainable model in the long term. I know of no other area of public life where – as is the case with the Trust – the same body is both regulator and cheerleader.”
Bradshaw said there was a proper timetable for determining the future of the BBC and called for a wide consultation, involving the public, before the renewal of the corporation’s charter agreement, which is due in 2016, not a “stitch-up” between BBC management and politicians behind closed doors.
The culture secretary went on to say James Murdoch, chief executive of News Corporation in Europe and Asia, had raised “genuine concerns” about the size, scale and impact of the BBC in a controversial address to the Edinburgh TV Festival last month.
In the last 20 years, Bradshaw said, the BBC has grown from being a provider of two TV channels, four national radio stations and a local radio network to a media giant with a world-leading online presence and a commercial publishing arm.
He said: “If it were to continue on anything like that trajectory, the rest of the industry would be right to be worried and the mixed economy would be seriously imbalanced.”
The government has previously signalled its intention to share the licence fee with other broadcasters, against the wishes of the BBC, to safeguard alternative public service broadcasting on other channels, including local and regional news provision.
In June, Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report recommended top-slicing the licence fee to help pay for a series of independently funded news consortia to replace ITV local and regional news services. This involves using the 3.5 per cent of the licence fee currently allocated to helping pay for digital TV switch-over.
Last night Bradshaw, a former BBC journalist, attacked BBC Trust chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, over the alternatives he’d put forward to the top slicing plan.
Bradshaw said the Trust’s suggestion that licence fee payers would rather see part of the fee returned to them than spent on alternative local news services was “not a serious or sensible way to have a debate about something as important as the future of the BBC” adding that the licence fee wasn’t the BBC’s to slice up.
He said: “Sir Michael Lyons appears to be arguing he would rather the licence fee were smaller than the BBC share any of it to save regional news.”
The government was determined, he added, not to lose the plurality of news provision in the regions as the vast majority of the public saw local news as vital.
He said it was essential for the government to press on with plans for three pilots of local news consortia, one each in Scotland, Wales and an English region to start next year, once consultation on the proposal ends next week.