Former Labour MP and Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee member Ian Lucas considers what John Whittingdale’s return to the department as a minister spells for the future of the public service broadcaster.
John Whittingdale is one of the survivors. A former Chair of the Culture and Sport Select Committee, he became Secretary of State for the same department and was in post for the crucial period when the BBC and the Government locked horns in negotiations for the Ten Year Charter which started on 1 January 2017.
One of the most interesting appointments in Boris Johnson’s reshuffle last week was of Whittingdale as Minister of State at the same department, now renamed the Department of Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS).
It is unusual, though not unprecedented, for a Secretary of State to return to a department in a more junior role. It indicates a genuine interest in the subject by the minister and this is certainly the case for John Whittingdale.
Whittingdale regularly attended Departmental Questions following his return to the backbenches and often put questions when the Government made statements on the future of broadcasting, showing a particular interest in the BBC.
Whittingdale’s return was, I suspect, a surprise – not least to him. Generally popular across the House of Commons, he is known for his incongruous love of heavy metal music and his “colourful” private life, reported assiduously by UK tabloids when he was Secretary of State.
One of the advantages of a politician moving to the backbenches is that they then make speeches about what they really think. Whittingdale has not been shy to tell us his views on the BBC. In a parliamentary debate in May 2019, he went into some detail in discussing the last Charter Review which, as Whittingdale made clear, did not go as far as he would like, despite its controversial abolition of free TV licences for the over-75s.
Whittingdale stated baldly: “The old argument that every household needs to pay the licence fee because everybody watches the BBC is, I am afraid, beginning to break down, and we are reaching a position where many households watch the huge range of programmes available and never turn to the BBC. That is why I have always believed that, in the long-term, the licence fee is not sustainable.”
This contrasted with the Conservative Government position, expressed in the same debate by former minister and MP Margot James who said: “The BBC’s brilliant public service and the role that it plays for older people would not be possible without the licence fee.” It is instructive that the minister stood down, even as a Conservative MP, under Boris Johnson. Her demise indicates the parlous, present state of support for the BBC within Conservative ranks.
In contrast, Whittingdale’s star is again rising. If his views on the BBC are well known generally, they are intimately understood by Johnson. His appointment is just the latest part of a pattern of behaviour by Johnson’s Government which indicates deep-seated hostility to the BBC.
We must never forget that this is a Government, the two most powerful members of which – Johnson and Michael Gove – are journalists. They are not just journalists but gained prominence working for two of the BBC’s most implacable opponents: the Telegraph Group and News International.
In my time on the DCMS Select Committee, I could be sure of a call from these media groups, along with the Daily Mail, whenever a story critical of the BBC came up. Their angle, for example, on the over-75s’ licence fee was the profligacy of the BBC, not the actions of the Conservative Government in taking it away. When the Committee investigated equal pay issues and moves to make employees become self-employed, a similar line was adopted.
It has been striking how quickly hostility to the BBC has shot up the Government’s agenda since the 2019 General Election. Immediate prominence has been given to a long-standing campaign by Conservative attack dog, Andrew Bridgen MP, who wants to decriminalise the enforcement of TV licence fees – an issue never raised with me by constituents in my 18 years in Parliament. The Prime Minister has chosen to implement a petty boycott on BBC interviews.
More seriously, the chair of the DCMS Select Committee, Damian Collins MP, was deposed at the beginning of this Parliament, to be replaced as chair by Julian Knight – the member of the committee in my perception most critical of the BBC and, interestingly, another journalist. The committee has had a series of robust exchanges with the BBC – on equal pay, the Charter Review, its governance – over the years but, nonetheless, it seems that the Government wanted another chair of the committee, despite Collins being an early supporter of Johnson’s Conservative leadership campaign.
Indeed, Collins would have been a less confrontational ministerial appointment in the position now occupied by Whittingdale, but it is now clear that that is not what Johnson wanted.
So, we know what John Whittingdale thinks about the licence fee and we know that Johnson appointed him. The scene is set for a battle royal between the Conservative Government and the BBC on the subject in the Interim Charter Review due shortly. That discussion is expressly ruled out of discussion in the current settlement. Somehow, I do not think that will dissuade this Government.
My concern is that the BBC now has a distinct shortage of allies. Criticism of the public service broadcaster from the political left is vociferous from wounded Jeremy Corbyn supporters and the Tory right is circling, waiting to strike on the licence fee. Who remains to ride to the rescue of Auntie Beeb?