After the party’s combative approach towards the corporation in the run-up to the election, Ed Vaizey, the new minister for media and arts, has used his first interview to tell the BBC that it will be treated firmly but fairly by the coalition government.
He even suggested that BBC 6 Music, the digital radio channel facing the axe, should be saved.
Last year the Conservatives had failed to win a parliamentary vote to freeze the licence fee temporarily. Now they are in office, Vaizey said there are no plans to block an annual increase by £3 next April and by a similar amount in 2012.
“We tried to vote a freeze for the fee last year but that was simply because inflation was next to nothing,” he said.
The Tories also appear to have softened their position on publishing the salaries of top presenters.
In March Jeremy Hunt, who has since been appointed culture secretary, said he wanted to “name and shame” BBC stars over their pay — despite protests from the broadcaster that this would breach confidentiality and lead to wage inflation as rivals were made aware of the stars’ value.
This weekend Vaizey seemed to temper his boss’s comments. “We will continue the conversation about their salaries and whether they should be revealed,” he said.
However, he was unequivocal about the need for greater transparency over the salaries of BBC managers.
The government wants the salary of the top person in any publicly funded organisation to be no more than 20 times that of the lowest employee.
At the BBC the £800,000 pay package enjoyed by Mark Thompson, the director-general, is 40 times higher — but ministers cannot enforce a change because of the broadcaster’s independence.
“I cannot tell Mark Thompson what his salary should be,” said Vaizey. “He can, however, listen to opinion.”
The government will insist that the National Audit Office must now be allowed to scrutinise the BBC’s annual report and accounts. It will also introduce the role of a non-executive chairman to oversee the corporation’s board.
This leaves the role of the BBC Trust, its watchdog, in doubt. “We intend to put in place a different and independent regulatory regime,” said Vaizey, although he refused to elaborate further.
He welcomed a BBC strategy review, announced this year, which is likely to lead to some cuts in programmes, commercial operations and websites.
“At the time the BBC admitted its websites had an impact on both national and local papers and media,” said Vaizey. “I hope it is still accepted by the BBC.”
The BBC Trust will soon give its own recommendations after a three-month consultation period closes this week.
Vaizey strongly hinted that he would like BBC 6 Music to be saved from the cuts. He pointed out that the “fantastic” digital channel has almost doubled its audience recently.
“It is also not a station which the commercial sector can or might offer,” he added.
During the interview Vaizey offered some hope to arts organisations which, like other publicly financed bodies, may learn this week about swingeing cuts to their budgets.
He claimed there will be no “bonfire of the quangos” and said a planned merger of the UK Film Council and British Film Institute “may no longer be necessarily happening”.
However, Vaizey said the Arts Council, which distributed lottery funding, must cut back its administration costs.
“My immediate priority is to manage the arts after cuts,” he said. “The frontline services of what the public gets in performances must be protected as much as possible. The Arts Council itself must be more about providing cultural leadership and not just a place for the funding cheque.”
Vaizey has high hopes for the Cultural Olympiad, an arts programme that will accompany the staging of the 2012 Olympics. “It must be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase the best of London’s arts,” he said.
He admitted that London’s eight-minute role at the closing ceremony of the Beijing Games in 2008 had been embarrassing.
“There were robust views expressed about that,” said Vaizey. “People have now listened.”
Source: The Times