White paper: BBC breathes a sigh of relief as commercial journalism sector given crumbs from the table

BBC Broadcasting House in Marylebone, London

 

Hopefully the BBC’s Charter renewal team won’t have been crass enough to pop Champagne corks yesterday wherever they have been toiling at New Broadcasting House.
But I am sure they will have breathed a collective sigh of relief.
For all the tough talk from Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, he has produced a new deal for the Corporation that leaves it more or less untouched in its current form.
Its guaranteed licence fee income will stay level at £3.7bn a year to 2022, but it will also be encouraged to experiment with charging for extra services.
This has to be broadly good news for journalism. BBC News, is afterall, by far the UK’s biggest employer of journalists with around 5,500.
For those working in the commercial journalism sector there are some crumbs from the table.
The BBC’s remit will be tweaked to ensure that “its focus will be on rigorous, impartial analysis of important news events and current affairs” – rather than on more populist content.
And it will also be told to work constructively with the regional press, rather than as a parasite – feeding of local newspaper stories without giving them due credit.
To make sure it doesn’t return to the bad old ways of mission creep and empire building as soon as the ink is dry on the new charter, there will be a much stronger regulatory regime overseen by Ofcom.
The promise to fund 150 new local council reporters has to be a good thing. But they replace only a tiny fraction of the thousands of local journalists who have been cut in recent years.
It is a sign of the desperate straits that local newspaper publishers are in that they would even countenance a form of state aid, which previously has been totally anathema to them.
And the BBC giveth…Some £8m a year will be spent on these new local reporters, filing for both press and the BBC, but the £5m a year BBC subsidy for Local TV is to be scrapped.
These start-up city-based independent TV stations, broadcasting on Channel 8, employ a large number of journalists themselves. There are 20 up and running and 14 more in the pipeline. Some may well fold without the £300,000 a year that was promised to them by selling content to the BBC.
The measures on star pay show how scared the Government is off picking a fight with the hugely-popular BBC as a time when its main focus is on spending its scant political capital keeping Britain in the EU.
The handful of fatcats earning more than £450,000 a year – Gary Lineker, Graham Norton, Chris Evans and the like – will be named. But the 100 or so earning more than £150,000 will remain secret.
Lineker’s main income comes from selling fatty snacks to children. Even the corporation’s journalism stars supplement their already ample pay with awards and events appearances charging up to £10,000 a night.
As Chris Evans admitted yesterday: “Most of us work part-time anyway. Just pay us less.”
But with many of the top earners remaining cloacked in secrecy there will be incentive to do that.
I suspect that by 2027 the idea that households should be charged a form of poll tax (of more than £160 a year) for the privilege of receiving a few ad-free TV and radio channels will seem strange.
By then most will probably be accessing all their news and entertainment content on demand rather than through the airwaves (as many already do).
The time is coming when the BBC will have to compete for our money on a competitive basis against the likes of Sky and Netflix.
But for now the curious British anomaly of having a state body with more than twice the funding of Foreign and Commonwealth office devoted to providing the public with free news and entertainment will continue.
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