The BBC is at a critical juncture in its history. The government is in the process of renewing the public broadcaster’s operating agreement, known as its royal charter, for the next 11 years.
The fundamental terms of this deal have been agreed following a Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) consultation, during which 192,000 people had their say on the BBC’s future.
The big changes being planned include abolishing the BBC’s governing body, the BBC Trust, and a pledge to publish the salaries of the broadcaster’s biggest stars. The BBC was also given the greenlight to commercialise its production arm, BBC Studios, which could have far reaching consequences for the UK’s £2.25 billion ($3 billion) television production sector.
The government and the BBC are now drawing up a draft charter, which once agreed will be formally written on vellum, sealed and laid in parliament. It will come into force in January 2017 when the BBC’s existing charter expires.
But political upheaval in Britain may have thrown a spanner in works. Theresa May will be named as prime minister on Wednesday and will almost certainly make sweeping changes to David Cameron’s cabinet.
Rumours are swirling in the UK broadcasting industry that this will result in a changing of the guard at the DCMS, the government department responsible for signing off the BBC’s new operating agreement.
John Whittingdale is the current culture secretary, but one source told Business Insider that his relationship with May is “almost non-existent.”
There has been some evidence for this in recent weeks. They were on opposite sides of the EU Referendum debate, with Whittingdale backing Brexit and May voting for remain. Whittingdale also supported Michael Gove’s bid to become the UK’s next prime minister.
His departure could signal a period of uncertainty for the BBC. Sources at the public broadcaster have until recently been bullish about getting its new charter ready for next year, but director general Tony Hall struck a note of caution in a press conference on Tuesday.
“I won’t say anything about the timetable. What I think we’ve all learnt over the past two and a half weeks is you start the day thinking one thing and then by lunchtime, the world looks completely different,” he said in response to a Business Insider question as the BBC published its annual report.
“We have made a huge amount of progress on the charter working with John Whittingdale and the DCMS and I’m hopeful we can get that [a draft of the new charter] out as soon as we are able.”
Tony Hall: I see ‘no reason’ why Theresa May will want to rip up plans for the BBC’s future
Outgoing prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne have been involved in renewing the BBC’s operating agreement this year and both believe that the corporation has an important role to play in the UK’s standing around the world. “Our national broadcaster is one of the most recognised brands on the planet,” Cameron told an audience at the British Museum in May.
BBC director general Hall said he has “no reason” to believe that May will want to rip up plans for the BBC’s future. He also stressed on two occasions on Tuesday that the “whole government” supports what has already been agreed between the BBC and the DCMS.
May has been widely described as a pragmatist in profiles in recent days and the BBC will hope she takes this approach to its new charter and allows the wheels of progress to keep turning – even if she does make changes at the DCMS.
The BBC will also hope that May remains an admirer of its work. The incoming prime minister served briefly as the shadow culture secretary and in comments to a Lords committee in 2005, she declared her admiration for the broadcaster.
She said: “The BBC has a unique position throughout the world. It is not simply enjoyed by those who watch and listen in the UK, there are many throughout the world who trust it and believe that the BBC has a reputation for and a name for a certain degree of quality and integrity that they can trust when, perhaps in some areas, they are not able to trust other broadcasters.”