John Whittingdale says BBC white paper proposals will 'strengthen it in some areas'

John Whittingdale_5

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has said media speculation about the contents of tomorrow’s BBC white paper has ranged from “complete fantasy” to “quite well informed”.

But he told the Commons the reports were “certainly not informed by me or my department.”

The Department of Culture Media and Sport was today unable to reveal when exactly the White Paper will be published, or where.

It is expected to deal with questions around whether the BBC website provides unfair competition for commercial publishers and how the BBC can work more closely to support local newspapers.

It will also set out a new governance regime, to replace the current BBC Trust.

Publishers’ body the News Media Association has been in extensive talks with the BBC around it funding a network of around 100 new reporters to cover council meetings – compensating for what has been called the “democratic deficit” left by local newspaper cutbacks.

John Nicolson, the SNP’s culture, media and sport spokesman, told the Commons MPs are awaiting the report with “some trepidation”, adding the Government should not doubt the level of support for editorially independent public service broadcasting throughout the UK.

He said: “There often seems to be a gulf between some of the wackier notions floated by the Government via the press and broadcasting reality.

“One of the most bizarre must surely be the idea that the BBC should desist from broadcasting popular programmes at the same time ITV broadcasts popular programmes.

“Presumably the BBC should only show dull, unpopular programmes at these times.

“Now there are reports that this remains a sticking point between the Government and the director general. Can you reassure us there is no truth in this absurd suggestion?”

Whittingdale replied: “Yes.”

He said: “I can inform the House that I will be making a statement tomorrow and laying before the House our White Paper on the BBC.”

The BBC’s royal charter expires at the end of December and a public consultation into its future was launched last year.

The White Paper will set out a tougher regime as part of a proposed deal to grant a new royal charter and safeguard the service for another 11 years.

Shadow secretary of state for culture Maria Eagle Eagle said the BBC “belongs to the people of this country” and has levels of public approval which “any politician would die for”.

She said: “(Mr Whittingdale) has been displaying seemingly implacable hostility towards the BBC during the charter renewal process.

“He’s also been avoiding Parliament. He’s had to be dragged to this House after weeks of almost daily leaked briefings to the media.

“He’s not come willingly to Parliament. He seems intent on using his brief sojourn in office not to strengthen the BBC but to diminish it, not to seek value in it but to denigrate it, not to enable it but to control it.

“So does he accept that a good charter needs to do three things – it needs to guarantee the BBC’s financial independence, it needs to guarantee the BBC’s editorial independence and it needs to help the BBC to fulfil its mission to inform, educate and entertain us all?”

Eagle said the appointments process for the BBC’s unitary board, which will replace the BBC Trust as its Governing body, must be “demonstrably independent of Government”.

She also said: “Today we read in the newspapers that (Mr Whittingdale) intends to re-write the BBC’s mission. He’s wrong to do so and we will oppose any such revision.

“He is seeking to turn the BBC away from a mission which has succeeded brilliantly for 90 years, of which the public approves.

“Just who does he think he is, Mr Speaker?”

Whittingdale rejected the suggestion he had been forced to the Commons, insisting the intention had always been to make a statement – which will occur on Thursday.

He said he would not reveal the contents of the White Paper until it is published, adding he believes all three Eagle’s concerns are “ones that we agree with her about and which will be met”.

The Tory frontbencher also told Ms Eagle: “It is occasionally the case that we criticise the BBC for repeats and insist on original content wherever possible.

“But in tomorrow’s case I suspect we’re going to have an awful lot of repeats from you since that is the time when you should ask the questions and I shall be happy to provide you with answers.”

Conservative former minister Ken Clarke said the BBC’s worldwide reputation depends on its independence from government and other groups.

He asked Whittingdale: “Will you reassure me that tomorrow’s White Paper will reinforce that reputation and it will be plain on the face of it that there is no threat to the BBC, which you have just been trying to reassure us of a few moments ago?”

Whittingdale agreed with Clarke, noting: “I’ve always made clear editorial independence is an incredibly important principle and we will do nothing to undermine that.

“I hope when you come to see the White Paper tomorrow you will actually find that we have done our best to strengthen it in some areas.”

Whittingdale accepted that it was “increasingly hard” for the BBC to strike a balance between a range of differing views, after Labour MP Ian Austin suggested it was under attack by politicians.

The Dudley North MP said: “Isn’t it really important that mainstream politicians stand up for the BBC’s right to do its job and defend its staff from the terrible bullying that we’ve seen recently?”

Whittingdale said: “I do sympathise with the BBC in terms of maintaining impartiality at a time when there are so many diverse views and striking a balance between those becomes increasingly hard but impartiality and objectivity is absolutely at the cornerstone of the BBC’s reputation and I hope that will always continue to be case.”

Picture: Reuters

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