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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > July 2016 > Reprieve for the BBC?

Reprieve for the BBC?

Despite the government’s apparent hostility, the corporation is on a roll

On Monday 11th May 2015, John Whittingdale, MP for the Essex constituency of Maldon, was appointed Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Given his credentials as a Thatcherite ultra and Brexiteer, the Daily Telegraph confidently greeted the appointment as “an effective declaration of war” on a BBC facing renewal of its Royal Charter.

Whittingdale, the reasoning went, was not only motivated by tribal instinct to cut the BBC in favour of its more politically reliable commercial rivals; he also had 10 years as chair of the crossparty House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, from where he attacked the BBC’s scale and funding platform. He was not only an ideologue, but a wellinformed ideologue.

One year and one day later, however, on Thursday 12th May, Whittingdale unveiled his BBC White Paper. Now he spoke in parliament of “one of our country’s greatest institutions” and proposed not the BBC’s evisceration, but an end to the six-year freeze on its universally payable licence fee and a loose commitment to retain similar arrangements for the foreseeable future. This came wrapped in an 11-year charter, designed to protect the BBC from party politics at their most intense. Coming from a man famed for calling the BBC licence fee “worse than the poll tax,” it was not so much a climb down as a freefall leap from a high ledge. The Daily Mail could only gasp that it was “a damp squib.”

Two sets of questions arise. First, what happened in these 366 days to turn a spitroasting into a Mary Berry tea party? How was Whittingdale turned? Then, a second set of bigger questions: where does the White Paper actually leave the BBC? Has it gained politically bankable air cover to see it through the next decade of digital media turbulence? Or is the White Paper’s vision one in which the BBC’s true enemies are to be located inside the machine; operating through a newly structured board, some of its members governmentappointed, and through the agency of the Office of Communications (Ofcom), the communications regulator, to which the White Paper offers unprecedented powers of external regulation over the BBC?

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In Prospect’s July issue: In her final issue as Editor Bronwen Maddox explores the legacy of former Prime Minister Tony Blair having spoken with him at a Prospect event on 24th May. She examines his domestic policy, the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and what the future holds for the Labour Party. The Chancellor George Osborne lays down his view on why the public should to “Remain” in the EU, and Ian Hargreaves takes a close look at what is happening at the BBC. Also in this issue: Former Conservative leader David Davis suggests he can see a very narrow set of circumstances that might push him towards running for the party leadership again, William Skidelsky writes about why tennis is the best sport and Vanora Bennett looks at Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary work recording Russia’s lost voices.