If John Whittingdale came to the Edinburgh TV Festival with the intention of calming tensions between the government and the BBC, the Culture Secretary did a pretty good job of it in his Festival interview today.
Relations between the Tories and the corporation have been strained since the General Election in May, after which the new government announced that the BBC had to shoulder the estimated £700m bill for free licence fees for the over-75s.
Whittingdale played down fears that the Conservatives were determined to dismantle the BBC. ‘The idea that there is an ideological desire to destroy the BBC is just nonsense,” he said.
Whittingdale admitted the government had unwittingly created the impression of hostility to the BBC by announcing the over 75’s licence fee move so close to the publication of charter renewal.
“The reason this deal was done was a very obvious one – the government has a priority which is getting the deficit down and this represents a significant contribution to that aim,” he said.
Whittingdale was asked about reports that Rupert Murdoch had met the Chancellor George Osborne ahead of the deal. He said any suggestions that Rupert Murdoch may have influenced the deal is “conspiracy theory gone mad.”
By the end of his hour-long interview with ITV News’ Alastair Stewart, Whittingdale had left his Edinburgh audience in no doubt that the licence fee is likely to be the government’s preferred funding method for the BBC for the next ten years.
He played down alternative funding methods such as advertising, state financing and subscriptions, adding that the latter would be too technically difficult to implement at the moment.
Speaking after the session, BBC director of television Danny Cohen said he was “pretty encouraged by a lot” of what Whittingdale had said in his talk.
However, Whittingdale reminded the Edinburgh audience that he still has ways to clip the BBC wings, amid talk of whether the licence fee will be CPI inflation linked or if the government will move to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee.
But he was broadly supportive of the work of the BBC. He said he didn’t think the BBC had a general bias to the left, adding that the corporation had not been partisan during the election.
He did, however, call on the BBC to take risks and to avoid producing shows that are “obviously indistinguishable from a populist, commercial programme.”
He cited The Voice as an example, noting that it had been the subject of a bidding war between the BBC and ITV.
Elsewhere, Whittingdale suggested the government might be prepared to privatise Channel 4, so long as its remit remained intact. He stressed that he ‘hadn’t received a bid for C4’ and that ‘the ownership of C4 is not under debate’. However, he added that the broadcaster could still deliver its remit if its ownership did change.
Whittingdale also gave the impression that he would not be averse to a possible US takeover of ITV, so long as any new owner continue to deliver on its remit. US broadcaster Liberty Global has steadily been increasing its stake in ITV over the past year.
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