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BBC Licence fee and new Charter: the political reality

Let's have an honest look at the current political situation and what it means for the BBC Charter renewal.

The Houses of Parliament, London  Photograph: Shutterstock
The Houses of Parliament, London Photograph: Shutterstock
published on UK Free TV

The ongoing operation of the BBC depends a very British constitutional device known as a Royal Charter. The eighth - and current one - expires at the end of the 31st December 2016, which is 590 days away (the 1947 one was extended for 6 months, the 1952 by two years and the 1964 one by three and then two years).

Royal Charters became law by being signed-off by the Monarch. Charters don't come from Parliament, but via the rather medieval bunch known as the Privy Council. You can see a list of the people (who are all addressed as the Right Honourable) in this group here -

Quite if a new charter will "emerge" from cross-party support or from a partisan angle is a good question. This is because of the rather unique situation in the Houses of Parliament.

A majority, just

Whilst there can be ongoing debate about the need to Reform the House of Lords and the need to have a system of democratic representation that bares relation to the number of the votes of the people, this is somewhat academic whilst we are looking at the renewal of the BBC Charter.

Under the current system, the Conservative Party have - just - a majority of the seats in the Commons, and this allows them to take full control of the levers of government for the next five years.

The Prime Minister has used his power as leader of the party with more than half of the seats to appoint John Wittingdale as Minister for Culture Media and Sport. The minister can use those power appointed to him to make the decsisions he see fit and appointments provided to him by various laws.

As Mr Wittingdale is already a member of the Privy Council he will also be able to take a new Charter to the Palace to be signed.

However, the BBC Charter is really a "head of state approved club rules list". The charter specifies the role of the current BBC Trust, so an executive decision to change some of this to Ofcom, may be possible.

However, the TV Licence is not part of the Charter, but part of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 section 2 (as amended by the 1998 Act). To change this will require an new law.

The problem with the numbers

Here is a graphic showing three sets of numbers.

In the first line is the House of Commons by seats. This is all the matters for the Lower House because the MPs assigned to ensuring that everyone in the party votes ("whips") only need a simple, single digit majority to get things passed. Such laws actually take five stages (first reading, second reading, committee state, report stage and third reading) before they are passed.

However, any bill can only be made law if it also passes the same set of rules in the House of Lords. And - as pointed out in alarming style by Quentin Letts in the Mail - the Blue Team don't have a majority there, they only have about a quarter.

The Parliament Acts

It is quite possible that you're thinking: "doesn't the Commons have the upper hand". And the answer is: sort of.

The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 do assign "primacy" to the Commons, and the Lords may not delay a "Money Bill" for more than a month. However normal laws can be delayed by "two sessions over one year". However, the law has been used only four times since the end of WWII (War Crimes 1991, PR for EU Elections 1999, Age of Consent Equality 2000 and Hunting Act 2004). It seems inconceivable that a Conservative government elected on a campaign of "stability not chaos" would use the Act over and over again.

Another small matter is that the Parliament Act is only used to implement things in a manifesto. Which the Conservative one from 2015 says:

"We will: freeze** the BBC licence fee, to save you money.

We will: protect pensioner benefits including TV licences. We will maintain all the current pensioner benefits including TV licences for the next Parliament.

We will deliver a comprehensive review of the BBC Royal Charter, ensuring it delivers value for money for the licence fee payer, while maintaining a world class service and supporting our creative industries.

That is why we froze the BBC licence fee and will keep it frozen, pending Charter renewal.

And we will continue to 'topslice' the licence fee for digital infrastructure to support superfast broadband across the country."

We will use vital institutions like the BBC World Service to achieve the best for Britain."

** (Might be worth nothing that if the UK inflation rate turns negative "freeze the BBC licence fee" will in effect put it up. )

What of the Salisbury-Addison Convention?

In 1946 this convention was agreed informally by the House of Lords. It says that the Lords will not "oppose the second or third reading of any government legislation promised in its election manifesto"

This is the main reason that the Parliament Act is used only once in a blue moon. However, there is nothing holding the Lords to this, and the diagram shown above makes it quite clear that the current situation of the "majority party" now having only 36.9% of the vote the Lords may feel they have to represent the wider electorate.

In summary

The Rt Hon John Whittingdale, Minister for Culture Media and Sport has the support of the Prime Minister and can rely on his party of enact changes to the BBC governance and financing in the commons.

However, given the situation in the Lords and the lack of any commitment to another funding method in the manifesto means that any change will have to have support from the wider political spectrum. However this does exist in the Select Committee Report.

Given the short timescale, it could be that the whole thing gets kicked into the long grass with an extension to the current charter.

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Thursday, 21 May 2015

5:58 PM

Sorry if I've overdone it a little with the detail. It just came out a bit less concise that I had hoped.

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Briantist's 38,899 posts US flag

8:42 PM

Biggest question, Do we trust any of them to do an impartial review? Or will the lobbyist's will hidden agenda's and business interests sway things?

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Ian's 497 posts GB flag
Ian's: mapI's Freeview map terrainI's terrain plot wavesI's frequency data I's Freeview Detailed Coverage

8:48 PM

Ian: I would say that the words of whoever it was that said that Thomas Jefferson said it, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance".There are certainly a lot of people with interests. Perhaps there are quite a few businesses with agendas that are anything but hidden.

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Briantist's 38,899 posts US flag
Michael Walker
10:19 PM

"Perhaps there are quite a few businesses with agendas that are anything but hidden" - those wouldn't include any owned Australian media mogul, would they?

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Michael Walker's 6 posts GB flag
Michael Walker
10:20 PM, 'owned by an Australian media mogul' - d'oh!

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Michael Walker's 6 posts GB flag
11:15 PM

Michael Walker: Who do you mean? You can't mean Rupert Murdoch, coz he's a Yank!

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Alan's 19 posts GB flag

11:56 PM

Brianist: I see your alleged Jefferson quote and raise you an alleged Edmund Burke/John Stuart Mill quote - 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing'.

The problem isn't just what people might have in mind for the BBC, its also getting an effective coalition together to defend it.

The Tories have a very slim majority, and there will be casualities - byelections, scandals, etc. However, the British 'Constitution' (which Peter Henessey and other have argued is essentially uncodified, and therefore open to whatever you think you can get away with) means that you can not only get an majority in parliament on a minority of votes cast during an election, you can do whatever you like, as long as enough MP's follow you through the lobby.
British PM's have the sort of power American Presidents can only dream about when it comes to pushing through legislation.

And, if Letts is any guide, they will push that to its limits. Many in the Tory Party will regard the manifesto as just a taster - and if you look at how Andrew Landsley operated, his actions on the NHS were pretty much the opposite of any promises made during the election or set out in the manifesto.

However, whilst the government might not feel bound by any conventions, promises, etc, their outriders in the media will insist that the Salisbury Convention stays, etc - this is not a fair fight. I'm not sure about Labour any longer either. Listening to pretty much all the contenders is a bit like listening to a 'speak your weight machine'. I suspect that they would sell their own grandmothers for even a ghost of a smile from Rupert Murdoch, so the best we can hope for is that they keep to their manifesto commitment towards the licence fee (although at what level is another matter). The Lords will be interesting - they dont have to get elected, they dont need to get ennobled, and they are the great and the good - exactly the sort of people who normally sit on BBC boards.

The BBC has not helped itself. Tony Hall's announcement about production made no sense. Not only did he basically negotiate with himself, and gave something away for nothing, he misunderstood the natues of his foes. They are like The Terminator, ' It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. '

And as Alan Rusbridger has pointed out, the BBC has internalised the press's attacks on it Alan Rusbridger: press can't afford to cover corruption and tax avoidance | Media | The Guardian - he's perfect correct that the BBC really has done little about climate change (which I've often complaied about), becuase its too afraid to. The rightwing press has moved the Overton Window, so that their views are portrayed as the centre, and forced the BBC to work to their agenda. Those attacks will continue, and Nick Hyam will continue to report on nonsense about the BBC of the type which Jon Stewart has described in the US as coming from 'bulls*** mountain' (the debate between him and O'Reilly is on YouTube, and reminds us that he's a much better journalist than the majority of journalists).

If you listen to those who want the BBC to go to subscription, a voluntary fee, etc, you come to the conclusion that they are all about the ideology, not the practicality. They will torture the data and twist logic to breaking point - this is about faith, not reason. The BBC is a succcesful non profit governemnt organisation - that simply should not exist, so they will try to shoot the BBC, just to watch it die.

However, that does not mean that its a done deal. BBC polls very high, its programming is generally high quality, and like the NHS, its a fixture. You may be right - kick it down the road, and leave it alone. There is already a Cabinet battle over Teresa May's batty idea about Ofcom and censorship, and thats just the start.

However, I suspect the haters will want red meat. The Barclay brothers (slightly dull Bond villians?), the Mail & the Express will all push hard. The Murdoch press certainly will. Governments like to do radical things, especially if they've just won something. On the other hand, look what happended over the forestry selloff - a disaster, despite the seeming behind the scenes support of the NT, etc.

If the BBC, other parts of broadcast and other media, 38 Degrees, etc can all have a solid front, then there will be a high price to pay for any change. Is Cameron willing to pay that price? Perhaps its a battle he can do without.

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MikeB's 2,579 posts GB flag
Friday, 22 May 2015
Fred Perkins
6:43 AM

Here's a good precursor to the coming debates, with a concise background as to how the BBC fits into the parliamentary, legislative and industry structure, written by Tony Ballard, a media lawyer: Media Law International

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Fred Perkins's 9 posts GB flag

3:39 PM

Fred Perkins: Thanks very much for that link. That is certainly an interesting summary of the "no parliamentary scrutiny is required to create a Royal Charter".

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Briantist's 38,899 posts US flag

5:53 PM

MikeB: Thanks for your reply.

That is another good quote! Perhaps I should throw "No taxation without representation" into the mix too?

Your point is interesting. The majority of people in the UK do support the BBC, even when they buy newspapers run by self-interested Americans who are worth $14bn and claim that they are not part of The Establishment.

I hoped my diagram above the "Winner Takes All" line illustrates the capture-the-flag nature of the electoral system. However, I don't think that we can expect too many by-elections in the current year.

Interest aside as United States Presidents and control of Congress - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia shows since WWII, the US system has only delivered the same party to all three arms of government for two years from 1954, four from 1977, 1994 and 2009.

I'm not sure if the press can keep the Salisbury Convention going. It isn't really down to the press, it is down to the individual lords voting "yes" to second and third readings of bills. As you rightly say, they don't have to face voters so they can do what they like.

If it were down to me then I would replace the Lords with something more modern and democratic, but it will be interesting to see how things progress as the next five Parliaments sit.

I don't really have any opinion of the Labour candidates. As far as I can see they need to go through the process that resulted in New Labour: listening to the public, having a media strategy, wanting to win but seem traumatised with how three-terms Tony Blair turned from Bambi to a megalomaniac.

I also agree with you about the current Tony Hall ideas. He seems to have missed the need to renew the love of the BBC with young people (the under 40s) and seems to want it to be like his last posting at the Royal Opera House.

The ease that the BBC can be manipulated by professionals because the cherished balance by strategies such as astroturfing has led to the problems they have with Climate Change and dealing with large Business.

I actually don't think that the subscription option will really fly in the next decade, but of course there are people employed out there to try and push that point of view.

The problem for the Barclay's and the Mail and the Express and Murdoch is that they are far too blatant and unsubtle: you don't get to be an MP or a Lord and not know Newspaper's publishers agenda.

I'm going to do as much as I can to try and keep things fair. I have gone to a great deal of effort over the last few years to try and "think outside the box" (sorry...) and look at every version of the BBC I could think of.

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Briantist's 38,899 posts US flag
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