Ministers have appointed a panel of media experts to advise the Government in its increasingly fraught negotiations with the BBC over the future of the licence fee.
The task force, set up by Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, is packed with the corporation’s commercial rivals – including an executive linked to Rupert Murdoch and a local newspaper boss who criticised the BBC for ‘parking its tanks’ on his lawn.
The move comes after Mr Whittingdale shocked the BBC last week by cutting a shotgun deal which will force it to take on the cost of free licences for the over-75s from 2018, leaving a £750million hole in its finances. The loss is likely to be only partially offset by an end to the licence fee price freeze.
Negotiations over the new Royal Charter (Existing one broken countless times!), to run from 2017, will focus on ways the corporation might be allowed to plug the shortfall, including a possible charge for shows streamed online.
Mr Whittingdale’s eight-strong advisory group includes Alex Mahon, a former boss of the Shine television production firm. Shine was founded by Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth and is part-owned by the media mogul’s company 21st Century Fox. Also on the panel is Stewart Purvis, the former editor-in-chief of ITN, and Ashley Highfield, a former BBC executive who now runs the Johnston Press local media group.
Earlier this year, Mr Highfield called on the BBC to make its regional content available to commercial rivals for free, rather than ‘parking a tank on every local lawn and offering its version of hyper-local news controlled from London W1A’. He said the BBC ‘needs to focus on what it’s brilliant at and stop trying to be all things to all people’.
The other panel members are Dame Colette Bowe, the former chairman of the communications regulator Ofcom, Dawn Airey, a Yahoo executive and former chief of Channel 5, Andrew Fisher, executive chairman of the Shazam internet music service, Darren Henley, head of the Arts Council, and Lopa Patel, a digital entrepreneur. They will meet with Mr Whittingdale up to six times a year until the review is complete.
The BBC’s funding of ‘free’ TV licences for the over-75s will be phased in from 2018/19, with the corporation paying the full bill from 2020/21. The BBC has said it will ask over-75s who can afford to pay to do so voluntarily but refuse to let others have the same choice.
Last night, Mr Whittingdale said the experts came from a range of industries with a broad spread of views about the BBC. He said: ‘Each member of the independent advisory group brings individual skills, experience and expertise.’