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BBC Charter renewal

Published Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The current BBC Charter expires at the end of 2016. A new Charter has now been agreed. What was the process, what is in the new Charter and what happened when it was last renewed?

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The BBC’s constitution is set out in a Royal Charter, while the rules under which it operates are set out in an Agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The first Charter Review was in 1927. Since then reviews have been carried out approximately every ten years.

The current Royal Charter was agreed on 19 September 2006 and came into full effect on 1 January 2007, following a lengthy review process. It runs until 31 December 2016.

Towards the end of the last Parliament it became clear that formal Charter renewal negotiations would not begin in earnest until after the 2015 general election.

Broadcasters, other stakeholders and politicians began positioning themselves in advance of negotiations, and certain themes rapidly emerged:

  • Governance
  • Changed viewing habits
  • Viability of the licence fee

In July 2015 a funding deal was agreed between the Government and the BBC. The key element was that the BBC would take over funding of free TV licences for the over-75s in return for certain concessions. The Government agreed to close the “iPlayer loophole” (the cause of significant income loss for the BBC) and said that legislation to that effect would be brought before Parliament in the near future.

Also in July 2015 the Government published a Green Paper on Charter Review. The BBC subsequently published its proposals for creating an “open, more distinctive BBC”. The BBC’s formal response to the questions posed in the Green Paper appeared in October, with detailed money-saving proposals following in November and more to come in spring 2016. A summary of responses to the Green Paper appeared in March 2016, which showed widespread public support for the Corporation and for its independent status.

A White Paper containing the Government’s specific proposals for the future of the BBC was published in May 2016. Among its key points are the following:

  • The licence fee will continue for at least 11 years, and will increase in line with inflation until 2021-22.
  • A new regularised process for setting the licence fee will be introduced, giving the BBC financial certainty by setting the licence fee every five years.
  • Ofcom will become the external, independent regulator of the BBC.
  • There will be a new “unitary board”, replacing the existing BBC Trust and internal BBC Executive, with responsibility for ensuring that the Corporation’s strategy, activity and output are in the public interest. No more than half of the board members will be Government appointees.
  • Editorial decisions will remain the ultimate responsibility of the Director-General.
  • The BBC will be required to give greater focus to underserved audiences, in particular those from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds and from the nations and regions which are currently less well served.
  • A new mission statement for the BBC will place emphasis on distinctiveness of output and impartiality.
  • The charter period will change from 10 to 11 years, to remove it from any political cycle. There will be a “health check” half way through the charter period.
  • The BBC World Service’s annual funding of £254m will be protected for five years and, as previously announced, the Service will receive an extra £289m of Government funding over the current Parliament.
  • Programme making will be opened to greater competition. The possibility of production by independent companies will exist for all BBC programmes except news and some parts of current affairs.
  • The Government will pilot a new fund for certain types of public-service programmes - including high-quality children’s TV - that production companies can bid for and show on free-to-air TV channels other than the BBC.
  • The National Audit Office will have a stronger role in scrutinising how the BBC spends its money.
  • All employees and freelancers who earn more than £450,000 will be named.
  • The “iPlayer loophole” will be closed.

Select committees in both Commons and Lords have run inquiries into Charter renewal. In its February 2016 report, the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee urged radical overhaul for the system of BBC governance. The Lords Communications Committee was especially critical of the “behind-closed-doors” manner in which the July 2015 funding deal was agreed.

The BBC Trust has conducted public consultations of its own and Sir David Clementi undertook an independent review into the governance and regulation of the BBC which recommended that regulatory oversight be passed wholly to Ofcom.

The new draft Royal Charter and the accompanying Framework Agreement were published on 15 September 2016. The Lords debated them on 12 October. A Commons debate followed on 18 October, on a motion to approve the draft Agreement. Some changes have been made from the proposals in the White Paper, notably on the publication of employees’ salaries – the threshold is now to be £150,000 – and the composition of the new unitary Board, the majority of whose members will now be appointed by the BBC. Following debates, the Government presented the finalised Charter to the Privy Council, to come into force on 1 January 2017.

The final Charter and Agreement were laid before Parliament as Command Papers in December. There will be a short period of transition before the BBC Board and Ofcom take on their new governance and regulatory roles on 3 April 2017.

The so-called “iPlayer loophole” was closed from 1 September 2016. This means that people who use on-demand services provided by the BBC (currently through the BBC iPlayer) are now required to have a TV licence.

A committee of the Scottish Parliament has also engaged with the BBC’s role in Scotland. Following the further devolution of powers, there is a new formalised role for Holyrood in Charter renewal. Likewise, the Welsh Government and National Assembly for Wales have a formal consultative role in the Charter Renewal process. The previous Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee published a report into BBC Charter Review in March 2016. A similar Memorandum of Understanding guarantees a consultative role for the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly in Charter renewal. Both the Northern Ireland Culture Minister and the relevant Assembly committee have fed their views into the UK-wide consultation process.

Debates on the draft Charter and Agreement took place in all three devolved legislatures in September and October 2016.

Commons Briefing papers SN03416

Author: Philip Ward

Topic: Broadcasting

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