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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.