The boss of Facebook in Europe will help advise the government on the best way to secure the future of high-quality television in the UK, joining several prominent Conservatives on a committee that will consider whether broadcasting regulations need to change.
Other individuals on the 10-strong committee along with Nicola Mendelsohn include David Cameron’s former press secretary Gabby Bertin; Sir Robbie Gibb, Theresa May’s former director of communications who was involved in setting up the forthcoming opinionated news channel GB News; the Conservative peer and former BBC chairman Michael Grade; and the Conservative MP Andrew Griffith, who until recently was a senior executive at Sky. Other members of the panel include representatives of independent television production companies.
The UK’s public service broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4, S4C, and Channel 5 – are heavily regulated and have to meet certain quotas on what programmes they make, such as high-quality news and current affairs output. In return for the extra cost of producing this material, they traditionally benefited from having prominent positions on television sets, attracting more viewers in the process. However, this advantage has been whittled away by streaming services, resulting in complaints that the system is no longer suitable for the current age.
Mendelsohn has taken up the unpaid role providing guidance on how public service broadcasters can contribute to the “economic, cultural and democratic life” of the UK and whether this part of the media is funded in a sustainable manner. Her appointment comes despite years of criticism of Facebook’s impact on the provision of high-quality news and its impact on the revenue on traditional advertising-supported media outlets
Separately, the government has launched a consultation on how much the BBC should be allowed to charge for TV licences from 2022 onwards. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has asked the corporation to set out its financial needs and said he will seek a deal that promises “the best value for money for licence fee payers”.
The BBC will be keen to avoid a repeat of the last licence fee deal, struck in the immediate wake of the Conservatives’ victory in the 2015 general election. The then chancellor, George Osborne, forced the BBC to take on the substantial cost of providing free TV licences to people over the age of 75, alongside other changes that resulted in substantial real-terms cuts to the broadcaster’s income.
The 2022 licence fee settlement is likely to be the last under the current system. The government has publicly insisted that it will stick to the BBC’s royal charter, which guarantees the licence fee funding model until 2027, although there is a growing acceptance that a funding model based on the ownership of a television set is increasingly anachronistic.
Proposals for funding the BBC in the future include charging a monthly fee on broadband contracts or even some form of funding through direct taxation.
Ministers have still yet to announce whether they back decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, having launched a consultation on such a move back in January. Since then the coronavirus pandemic has upended the media industry and hit the BBC’s commercial income.
The corporation is also waiting on the announcement of a new BBC chairman, with applications for the job due to close on Wednesday.