John Whittingdale
Culture Secretary, John Whittingdalefinally has BBC in his sightsReuters

There is a dangerous complacency about some of the reactions to the government's white paper proposals on the new BBC Charter. Yes, some of the more absurd ideas which were planted in government-friendly newspapers have been averted. There will be an 11-year charter, no top-slicing of BBC revenue, and index-linking of the licence fee (as promised) will stay.

But anyone who seriously believes that these proposals do not reflect John Whittingdale's long-held agenda to circumscribe the BBC's scope and independence is frankly delusional. In two profoundly important areas, the white paper heralds the biggest shake-up in the BBC's history – and the consequences of both will be damaging.

Independence

As expected, following recommendations of Sir David Clementi, the BBC Trust is to be abolished and a new unitary board of 12 or 13 will manage the corporation's everyday activities. Regulatory oversight – ensuring the BBC sticks to charter rules – will be moved to Ofcom.

The government has insisted on retaining the power to appoint six board members, including the chairman and vice-chairman. This would be the first time in BBC's history that the body which oversees day-to-day editorial and strategic decisions, including issues around political programming and contentious investigations, contains a significant number of ministerial appointments.

Forget the disingenuous assurances coming from government "sources" (and those parroting their lines) that these appointments will be "independent". The process will, as the white paper explicitly states, be "led by the government". That's a great message to send to Turkey, Hungary and other countries who are being vilified for trying to turn their public broadcasters into state broadcasters.

But that's not all. As well as government appointments on the Board, the National Audit Office is to have access to all areas of the BBC, in the interests of "accountability" – despite already having the ability to conduct value for money studies. The NAO's relationship with the Public Accounts Committee would mean another lever for political oversight, and the potential for compromising confidential journalistic source material.

Then there is the five-year "mid-term review" which Whittingdale referred to in his oral statement as "an opportunity to check the reforms are working as we intend". So if there is anything in the regime which the government – by then newly-elected – wishes to change, it will have the perfect opportunity without waiting for a new charter.

Distinctiveness

Whittingdale has long sympathised with complaints the BBC is "crowding out" commercial rivals. By virtue of its existence, of course, the BBC provides competition across the board. But the more "market gap" it becomes – that is, filling in the low-rating, worthy material which commercial broadcasters and news publishers avoid – the more it suits the likes of ITV, Sky, LBC, TalkRadio and the national and local press. And of course, the more marginal it becomes in consumers' everyday lives.

Whittingdale was clear in his statement that "we will place a requirement to provide distinctive content and services at the heart of the BBC's overall core mission" and that the new licensing and governance regime "will ensure its services are clearly differentiated from the rest of the market." And just to be on the safe side, the government will keep a beady eye on Ofcom's implementation of the new regime (or "provide guidance" as the White Paper delicately puts it).

In short, the BBC's creative freedom to make popular entertainment programmes will be gradually curtailed. It won't happen overnight. But over the next 11 years, the BBC will be pushed inexorably toward the smaller, more compliant, more worthy and less patronised broadcaster that John Whittingdale has always craved.


Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster and has given expert evidence to select committee inquiries in the Houses of Parliament. He is author of "The Battle for the BBC". Twitter @stevenjbarnett