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Culture Secretary 'bullying' BBC with briefing before charter renewal paper

Published 08/05/2016

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has been accused of trying to undermine the BBC
Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has been accused of trying to undermine the BBC

Labour MPs have criticised the "unprecedented bad blood" between the Culture Secretary and the BBC, claiming the broadcaster is "spooked" by Government threats.

Former culture minister David Lammy said John Whittingdale was bullying the broadcaster by pre-briefing the press ahead of publishing a White Paper on BBC charter renewal.

He claimed Mr Whittingdale was attempting to undermine the BBC ahead of a "hatchet job" on its operations.

Meanwhile, Labour frontbencher Justin Madders accused BBC1's Sunday Politics show of bias against his party because it was "spooked" by the Tory plans.

The White Paper could reportedly be published as soon as Thursday and will set out a tougher new regime as part of a proposed deal to grant a new Royal Charter to safeguard the service for another 11 years.

Reports suggest Mr Whittingdale plans to force the BBC to publish how much it pays top talent earning over £150,000 and impose scheduling restrictions to stop it showing hit shows like Strictly Come Dancing at prime time, going head to head with commercial broadcasters.

The Observer reported that at least 20 Tories in the Commons and Lords are ready to oppose the White Paper and attempt to force the Government into another U-turn following climbdowns on forced academisation and admitting child refugees from Europe.

Mr Lammy insisted the BBC should be supported, telling the Murnaghan programme on Sky News: "The bad blood we are seeing between Whittingdale and the BBC is unprecedented.

"The pre-briefing we're seeing, tinkering with schedules, now going on about pay, it's very, very threatening to an institution that's loved, that needs to reform - and I've given the BBC a hard time about diversity...

"But, that said, this is a great institution that deserves to be supported and some of this pre-briefing nonsense, it's really about undermining and softening the place up to do a hatchet job."

And Mr Madders tweeted : "An hour attacking Labour by BBC on Sunday politics,follows the pattern of the coverage of last week, clear charter renewal has spooked Beeb."

Former BBC Trust chairman and Tory peer Lord Patten of Barnes previously described the potential bar on the BBC showing popular shows at peak times as "ridiculous".

But ITV has complained about licence fee payers' money being used to wage a ratings battle with it and other advertising-funded channels.

Mr Whittingdale has said the charter is looking at whether the broadcaster should continue to be "all things to all people" or should have a more "precisely targeted" mission in terms of its output.

He previously expressed concerns about the BBC's flagship news bulletin being broadcast at the same time as ITV's.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: "We are not commenting ahead of publication of the White Paper later this month."

BBC sources rejected Mr Madders' claims, insisting the coverage had been balanced and impartial.

Senior peers, including former Tory cabinet minister and journalist Lord Fowler, set out plans to protect the broadcaster from ministerial interference.

The proposed legislation would guarantee the BBC's independence in the management of its own affairs including all matters of output, editorial and creative decisions.

Under the peers' plans the licence fee would rises at least in line with inflation and be for the exclusive use of the BBC, members of a new BBC board would be appointed through an independent committee and the Royal Charter on a statutory footing with votes in both Houses of Parliament to reduce ministerial interference.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Liberal Democrat QC who has drafted the legislative proposal, said: "The BBC is a national treasure and following decisions already taken by ministers to cut funding, the recent debate in the House of Lord showed there is great concern across the country about the broadcaster's future."

Lord Fowler said: "Governments of all persuasions have tried to interfere with the BBC and political antagonism towards it is certainly not confined to one party. That suggests to me that the BBC's global reputation for balance and impartiality is not only justified but also deserves to be protected.

"Under the current rules for the Royal Charter and charter renewal, decisions rest entirely with the Government. There is no parliamentary scrutiny, no vote in parliament and no appeal. It is utterly undemocratic, it makes a nonsense of parliamentary sovereignty, it hands all power to ministers, and it is no way to treat an organisation as precious to our country as the BBC.

"Our Bill would provide safeguards against unacceptable change by making charter renewals subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament. It is the best way to guarantee a BBC free from the interference of governments right and left."

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