John Whittingdale is the new Culture Secretary. Photo: Getty
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Is the BBC safe in the hands of our new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale?

Licence to kill.

On the face of it, John Whittingdale’s appointment as secretary of state for culture is thoroughly bad news for the BBC and those who value its cultural, democratic and economic contribution to the UK. With the current ten-year charter due to expire next year – at the same time as the freeze in the licence fee – Whittingdale will essentially determine on what basis and with what resources the BBC will continue from January 1 2017.

The Daily Telegraph’s chief political correspondent, Christopher Hope, described his appointment as an “effective declaration of war” on the BBC while the Daily Mail’s political editor James Chapman tweeted that, while Cameron had apparently been angered by BBC election coverage: “I didn’t believe he was as cross as Whittingdale’s appointment suggests."

If commentators from the right-wing press are agitated, the reaction from supportive civil society groups and academics borders on despair.

 

It is not difficult to see why. Ideologically on the right of his party, Whittingdale described the licence fee last year as “worse than the poll tax” and unsustainable in the long term. The Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which he chaired, published its report on the BBC just three months ago, clearly imprinted with his personal vision for the future. Whittingdale wants a BBC which must “do less in some areas”, with a small proportion of revenue “made available for other public service content priorities” and with market impact tests to be triggered by any allegations of “crowding out” by commercial competitors.

Combined with replacement of the BBC Trust by a “Public Service Broadcasting Commission” with the power to redistribute revenue to other organisations, the report was a recipe for a BBC reduced to an impotent rump within ten years.

Moreover, Whittingdale is reported to have historical links to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which has long targeted the BBC – just as it does the ABC in Australia and PBS in the US – as a public sector intervention which interferes with Murdoch’s own corporate ambitions.

As long ago as 1996, Whittingdale resigned as parliamentary private secretary to the Conservative minister Eric Forth, having voted against his own government’s broadcasting bill because it prevented any newspaper proprietor with more than 20% of national circulation from owning a terrestrial television licence. As everyone recognised at the time, there was only one proprietor in the frame. In the immediate aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, he was revealed to have been a long-standing friend of Murdoch’s key senior executive Les Hinton.

Ostensibly, then, a perfect storm of an antagonistic minister, a charter renewal process that must be short and sharp, a Conservative government likely to be at its most energised and least vulnerable in the first 18 months – and a right wing baying for BBC blood.

Making a case

There are, however, a couple of straws in the wind. During his ten years running the media and culture committee, Whittingdale was widely regarded as a fair and effective chairman. He is very familiar with the issues and is not deaf to proper arguments. Having given oral evidence to his committee on several occasions, I can testify that – unlike one or two of his former select committee colleagues – he listens.

Moreover, he was clear in his comments about the future of the licence fee that he was thinking beyond the next ten years – in other words, any move towards subscription or other funding solutions would have to wait until the 2026 Charter, by which time both technology and politics will have moved on.

In the short term, then, Whittingdale might be open to persuasion that the BBC is indeed a unique and valuable UK asset which should be protected from the ravages of deep and immediate cuts, let alone fundamental restructuring. It will, however, require not only the marshalling of incontrovertible facts, but a well-organised civil society campaign to demonstrate that the BBC remains a much-loved and internationally admired institution.

To reduce its funding or start redistributing the licence fee will inevitably result in services closed and quality compromised, with profound and irreparable damage to the BBC’s long-term future. Will Whittingdale want to preside over the wilful destruction of what remains for most people – if not his own right wing – a great British institution?

If all else fails, perhaps we can rely on the House of Lords. According to the Salisbury convention, the Lords will not oppose government legislation which arises out of election manifesto promises. But while the Conservative manifesto commits to continued use of licence-fee revenue for rural broadband roll-out, it says nothing about reducing the size of the BBC, changing its constitutional structure or introducing contestable funding.

If the new culture secretary is really intent on returning to his ideological roots and inflicting terminal damage on such a vital British institution, those of us who wish to resist such political savagery may have to start mobilising the upper house.

Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.