openDemocracyUK

The BBC Strategy Review: The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom responds

The Campaign
23 June 2010

General Comments

It is clear that the BBC must continuously review its output and its strategy, especially at a time of both rapid technological change and economic uncertainty. However, we profoundly regret both the timing and tone of this Strategy Review, which appears to be a response to very far from disinterested criticisms of the Corporation by James Murdoch at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August 2009 and to the ongoing attacks on the principle of a licence-fee funded broadcaster both from other commercial rivals and from politicians committed to market-based broadcasting and hostile to the very principle of public service.

Although we support the BBC’s stated commitment to quality and outstanding content (but, there again, who wouldn’t?), we do not believe that the Strategy Review ensures this commitment across the Corporation’s whole output. In particular we regret the Corporation’s acceptance that, in the words of its Director General: “The BBC should not attempt to do everything. It must listen to legitimate concerns from commercial media players more carefully than it has in the past and act sooner to meet them”.

Despite the stated commitment to continue the BBC’s historic aim to ‘educate, entertain and inform’, many of the proposals put forward in this document appear simply to acquiesce to the view of its commercial rivals and political enemies that the BBC should confine its activities merely to compensating for ‘market failure’. Amongst its five key principles, ‘doing fewer things better’ and ‘setting new boundaries’ both imply shrinking the BBC’s services and abandoning certain areas of popular programming. The rationale given for cutting 6 Music is that “it competes head-on for a commercially valuable audience” whereas the whole of UK broadcasting history strongly suggests that purely commercial companies will not devote a whole station to broadcasting independent and left-field music because they do not regard doing so as commercially worthwhile. The proposal would, in fact, be rather more convincing (although of course no more acceptable) if it advocated abolishing Radio 1.

We fully understand that the BBC’s governing body and regulator, the BBC Trust, is charged with assessing the ‘public value’ of each area of the BBC’s output in relation to its ‘market impact’. The Review is presented as a response to a ‘challenge’ from the Trust asking if the Corporation’s “focus [could] be narrowed and its scale reduced”. However, these factors notwithstanding, we strongly contend that the role of the Trust should be to support the BBC’s activities, not to restrict or undermine them, nor to subject them to judgement by market criteria which are not only inappropriate to a public body but also highly questionable in themselves.

Commercial companies celebrate their strengths. The BBC, by contrast sounds thoroughly apologetic and defensive. What other highly successful, hugely popular organisation would feel the need to apologise for its success and promise to do less of what it does so well? The BBC has an enviable reputation both at home and worldwide, and those who support it simply cannot understand the pusillanimity of its response to the current self-interested and politically motivated campaigns against it. In this respect, it is worthwhile drawing to attention Clause 44 (3) of the BBC Licence which states that: ‘The UK Public Services must not contain any output which expresses the opinion of the BBC or of its Trust or Executive Board on current affairs or matters of public policy other than broadcasting or the provision of online services” (emphasis added).

Below we answer a number of specific questions posed by the Consultation.

1. Strategic Principles

The BBC has five strategic principles: are these the right ones?

  1. Putting quality first, including five areas of editorial focus for all BBC services.
  2. Doing fewer things better – including stopping activities in some areas.
  3. Guaranteeing access for all licence fee payers to BBC services.
  4. Making the licence fee work harder – being efficient and offering better value for money
  5. Setting new boundaries.

These principles need to be considered in the light of the overall tone of the Review.

The BBC should always put the quality of its services at the top of its agenda. However, it is by no means clear what the BBC actually means by ‘quality’, other than its singling out five areas of editorial focus for all BBC services, namely:

  • The best journalism in the world.
  • Inspiring knowledge, music and culture.
  • Ambitious UK drama and comedy.
  • Outstanding children’s content.
  • Events that bring communities and the nation together

These are pretty broad categories, but if we except comedy and events that bring the nation together, one suspects that ‘quality’ is being defined here, albeit implicitly, as the opposite of ‘popular’ and hence as a way of restricting the BBC’s output to a specific type of content not supported by the market. This impression was reinforced recently by remarks made by Caroline Thompson at a Westminster Forum on Public Service Content. We would argue that quality should be maintained across all areas of a thoroughly diverse output, including popular and minority interest programmes alike. We would also stress that diversity is just as important as, and certainly more satisfactorily definable than, quality.

‘Doing fewer things better’ inevitably means a withdrawal from, or a reduction of, key services, and consequent job losses. This is exactly what the BBC’s commercial rivals such as News Corporation demand on a daily basis, and the cry has also been taken up by their allies in parliament, who of course have their own ideological reasons for disliking a public body such as the BBC and wishing to see it either dismantled entirely or greatly reduced in size and scope. Rather than meekly adopting its enemies’ perspective, the BBC’s should robustly defend its position and campaign energetically to win public support for all of its activities.

A similar interpretation can be put upon the formula ‘making the licence fee work harder – being efficient and offering better value for money’. This is the language of the market and entirely inappropriate for a public service – in this case the public service of broadcasting. Again, the BBC is simply adopting the language of its critics, and the result of thinking and speaking in these terms will inevitably be a reduction of services and a flood of job losses.

Likewise, in this context the phrase ‘setting new boundaries’ can only be taken to be weasel words for ‘cutting back on services’, services that are highly valued by a majority of the population.

Should the BBC have any other strategic principles?

Yes, but they should be driven by the need to provide as wide as possible a range of services to the diverse communities in the UK, rather than by a defensive response to political pressures and vociferous campaigns by its commercial rivals.

  • Key principles should be to:
  • Sustain and expand public service content across all available platforms so as to ensure that licence fee payers can access services in different ways and at their convenience.
  • Reflect, engage with and support the cultural, political, and social diversity of the United Kingdom.
  • Inform, educate and entertain across all services.
  • Provide a window on the international context for all licence fee payers. 

2. Putting Quality First

Which BBC output do you think could be higher quality?

The BBC should aim for high quality in all its output, across all genres, and whatever the medium. It should not be satisfied with simply copying formats from other broadcasters, but should attempt to enhance and develop them, as well as formulating new ones. It should not take the view that it must not engage in high quality popular entertainment because that poses competition for its rivals. The job of the BBC is to meet the wide range of needs of its audience, and it must always be remembered that the job of public service broadcasting is to educate, inform and entertain. In terms of what public service broadcasting means for the Corporation’s workforce, the BBC’s prime focus should always be on creative freedom for producers, writers, performers and other creative staff, without the imposition of formulaic and market-driven solutions by commissioning editors and managers.

News and current affairs on the BBC is certainly preferable to that found in the partisan press, especially at the popular end of the market. However, it is not without its own significant problems. In particular it is still far too closely bound up with a Westminster perspective, and has yet to develop a way of representing to the UK population the diversity of views that exist within the country as a whole. In particular it has yet to put into practice many of the more innovative ideas about diversity of viewpoint explored in its report From Seesaw to Wagonwheel. Its failure to spot the economic crisis coming, and its subsequent coverage of that crisis (with the exception of reports by Robert Peston and Paul Mason), show that its journalism is far too heavily based on unquestioning acceptance of the nostrums and assumptions of the Westminster consensus, and more generally of neo-liberal economics, even when alternative perspectives are readily available from such respected figures as Joseph Stiglitz and George Soros. And for an organisation with such large journalistic resources, the BBC is far too heavily dependent on the news agenda set by the partisan press – this is particularly true of the Today programme, and particularly when it is presented by John Humphrys. The BBC’s desire to broadcast ‘the best journalism in the world’ is admirable, but if it wishes to do so it must do a great deal more to develop its own journalistic agenda and its own distinctive style, not ape that of Fleet Street or Sky News. At present, it is strikingly apparent that its journalistic agenda becomes more distinctive the further the day advances – as a comparison of, for example, Today and The World Tonight makes abundantly clear.

In short, in order adequately to represent the UK to itself, BBC news and current affairs programmes need to consider very carefully and critically the cultural, political and social, as well as the journalistic, assumptions governing the way in which they represent society to its members.

3. Offering You Something Special

Which areas should the BBC make more distinctive from other broadcasters and media?

What makes the BBC distinctive is, quite simply, its historic commitment to broadcasting as a public service. This, at its best, permeates all of its services, and means that it will, for instance, broadcast programmes on subjects not covered by the commercial sector. But it also means that it will engage in subjects covered by the commercial sector but do so in a less commercially-driven or compromised fashion. This includes the freedom to appeal to minority audiences on occasion – and indeed the freedom to fail. The BBC is distinctive precisely because it engages across all genres and a whole range of platforms, whereas the commercial sector will always cherry-pick only those which are profitable.

4. The Five Editorial Priorities

• The best journalism in the world

• Inspiring knowledge, music and culture

• Ambitious UK drama and comedy

• Outstanding children’s content.

• Events that bring communities and the nation together

Do these priorities fit with your expectation of BBC TV, radio and online services?

As mentioned earlier, the problem with these priorities is that they’re conceived at a high level of generality. They’re also very ‘mom and apple pie’ – what’s not to like (that is, unless you’re a commercial rival which wants to see the BBC rapidly consigned to a ghetto of minority broadcasting)? Again, the point which needs stressing here, as elsewhere, is that the BBC should be committed to outstanding content across all genres and forms of programming, and should also be committed to reflecting the full diversity of all communities and cultures in the UK, as well as those of the devolved nations.

5. Doing Fewer Things and Doing Them Better

Quite simply, no. As stated earlier, this is a feeble and pusillanimous response to a transparently self-interested campaign ignited by the BBC’s commercial competitors and their political allies/spokespeople.

Quite apart from any other considerations, such a strategy will mean that the BBC will be cutting jobs and services at a time of recession. This will simply add to the overall problems in the economy by reducing demand in the economy for goods and services. As a major economic force and a public institution, the BBC has a responsibility not to take steps which might damage the economy. Furthermore, at a time of recession and social tension, the country particularly needs the kind of impartial news and current affairs which the BBC is capable of delivering (even if it too often fails to do so).

Radio 6 Music. The reason given for suggesting its closure is that its ‘market impact’ is too great. But the service occupies an important niche in our musical culture, doing things which commercial stations have not done, do not do and will not do. Indeed, for these reasons it should be developed, not closed. It should also be noted that there has been a substantial campaign to retain it, and that the station’s future is thus a matter of considerable public interest.

Radio 2. The BBC should not move down the road of making Radio 2 more speech- orientated and shift its demographic up the age range merely to placate its commercial rivals.

The Asian Network serves an important section of the community. The point is taken that the Asian community is itself diverse, but the station’s audience could be developed further by the BBC promoting it in a more sustained and vigorous fashion as opposed to plotting its demise. And the community itself should be fully consulted on any alternative proposals made for the station’s future.

Website. The proposal to spend 25% less on the BBC’s excellent and pioneering website is truly shocking. Any reorganisation and development of the site (and we fully accept that technical developments will mean very great changes to the site in the next few years) should be undertaken purely with the benefits to the licence fee payer in mind, and with the idea of expanding and improving the services which it offers, as opposed to reducing them. Judgements about the shape of the website should be creatively and editorially driven and taken in interaction with its numerous users, not in response to attacks from the BBC’s commercial competitors and their political allies.

The BBC should offer a robust defence of its services rather than a timorous willingness to offer up important services to placate its opponents. The BBC’s numerous and loyal users expect nothing less, and are absolutely dismayed by its current stance on these matters. The idea that the BBC website should be reduced in order to make way for more commercial (and very probably politically tainted) dross from its rivals would be utterly laughable were it not so downright tragic.

6. Guaranteeing Access to BBC Services

The main aim of the BBC should be to ensure that all licence fee payers can access all services on all platforms. This is of course largely a matter of economics and technology, but it is an entirely realistic aim providing the will is there to fulfil it.

In terms of content, we welcome access to the current output, but also to the BBC’s important archive of programmes (see below), and to new forms of content especially commissioned for new delivery platforms, and an interaction between broadcast and online material. In terms of delivery, we also welcome the moves towards internet-enabled television and radio.

We also recognise the problems which lie ahead in guaranteeing free, independent and impartial news when the BBC shares an online platform with highly partial newspapers. This brings us back to the above-mentioned point about the BBC’s need to develop and protect its own distinctive journalistic agenda. The BBC’s principles should be strongly defended whatever platform is accessed – particularly in the face of the absolutely inevitable attacks on its ‘liberal bias’ from populist, right-wing competitors in the online news field.

7. The BBC Archive

As long as the economic rights of the contributors (producers, actors, technicians and so on) are properly safeguarded, then the BBC should make available online as much of its recent and older programming as possible, as well as the documents held in its archive at Caversham. This is not only of great benefit to licence fee payers, but it is also of the greatest importance to educationalists and researchers. The BBC should be very clear that in doing this it is returning value to the licence-fee payer, and that it is offering a service which its commercial rivals are unlikely ever to offer to their subscribers on such a scale.

8. Making the Licence Fee Work Harder

We have already expressed our dislike of the economistic language employed in this sentence (which carries distinct overtones of Mr Gradgrind and ‘sweating the assets’), and of the idea of judging whether the licence fee represents ‘value for money’, which is quite simply an inappropriate way of thinking about how a public service should work and how its performance should be judged. However, if this kind of approach is really deemed necessary then the BBC should be far more robust in publicising figures about the value of the licence fee. Compared to all of its major competitors the cost for each viewer per day of the services it provides is excellent value. That point needs to be made much more often and much more loudly. Nor can the licence fee be judged simply in terms of what the user of the BBC’s services receives in return. For example, last year the BBC’s investment in content, including its commercial subsidiaries, contributed at least £7.5 billion to the UK's creative economy, supporting jobs and generating at least £2 of economic value for every £1 of the licence fee.

However, the BBC in its upper echelons is caught up in the spiralling culture of excess that characterises the reward structure at the top of the commercial media industries, and indeed of industry in general. Recent controversy over the pay and perks of senior managers and of individual artists points to something of an identity crisis at the BBC, and a failure to grasp what it means to be a public service broadcaster. The BBC is powerful and attractive enough in its own right to draw in fresh new talent on its own terms, and, although it should pay its staff properly , it should not, as a matter of principle, feed the culture of greed and excess which gives those at the top of industry outrageous rewards and keeps those at the bottom on low pay and suffering from massive job insecurity. Aping the practices of the commercial media sector should, quite simply, not be an option. If it does so, then the BBC risks losing the support of those who defend public service broadcasting as a matter of principle. We do, however, support the aim of removing the “remaining elements of its traditional hierarchy and replacing them with a flatter, more dynamic and flexible structure”, if this means a thinning of the ranks of micro-managers, strategists, market-researchers and others who make little or no creative contribution to BBC output, and for the most part actually impede it.

If job cuts have to be made lower down the pay scale, and in the all-important creative areas, then this process must be undertaken in full and proper consultation with the trade unions in the BBC. If not it will appear to be, and is indeed likely to be, a simple exercise in job cutting and a further, unnecessary contracting out of services. This is a process in which users of the BBC’s services need to be consulted too.

9. Setting New Boundaries for the BBC

  • Reducing the BBC offer in pop music radio by closing 6 Music,
  • Closing niche services for teenagers: BBC Switch and Blast!
  • Reducing BBC expenditure on programmes bought from abroad (eg. American films and dramas)
  • Limiting BBC expenditure on sports rights
  • Not offering any more localised services than the BBC already does – eg. new services for individual towns or cities
  • Making the BBC website more focussed on particular areas.

Do you think that the BBC should limit its activities in these areas?

Our answers to Question 5 have already dealt with the points about 6 Music and the websites. However, we would like here to make the additional point that the Review promises to add a ‘click-through’ to non-BBC sites on every page. While welcoming an engagement with other publicly funded institutions and civil society organisations, we would be extremely concerned if the BBC’s facilities were to be put at the service of commercial companies. There should be no promotion of commercial services which is not editorially justified in public service terms. The BBC should draw up a strict code of practice in this area which conforms strictly to its editorial guidelines, fair trading guidelines and cross-promotion rules.

In terms of reducing expenditure on programmes bought in from abroad, three points need to be made. Firstly, the BBC should not reduce its expenditure on US television shows simply in order to spend the money saved on home-grown versions of the same shows (which is what one strongly suspects is exactly what it has in mind). Secondly, the BBC should spend less on importing Hollywood movies and a great deal more on investing in British films. And thirdly, particularly bearing in mind both the principles of public service broadcasting and also the UK’s commitments as a signatory (albeit an unwilling one) to the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity, the BBC should import more distinctive and original programmes from countries other than the USA, particularly from the developing world. In this context it’s worth pointing out that Clause 8 (2) (a) of the BBC Licence points to “the need for the BBC to have a film strategy”, whilst Clause 10 (a) of the same document stresses that the BBC Trust must ensure that the BBC “makes people in the UK aware of international issues and of the different cultures and viewpoints of people living outside the UK through news and current affairs and other outputs such as drama, comedy, documentaries, educational output and sports coverage”.

When it comes to spending on sports rights, the BBC is clearly in a difficult position. On the one hand, it needs to avoid inflating the costs of these rights to absurd levels when it engages in competitive bidding with other broadcasters. On the other hand, as a public service broadcaster it needs ensure that it does have a major presence in all of the main UK sports (as well as nurturing less mainstream ones that do not get the coverage they deserve). In the final analysis, however, the only solution to this dilemma is a political one – namely extending the number of ‘listed’ sporting events – for which the BBC should be strongly lobbying the government, turning a resolutely deaf ear to the screams of outrage which will most certainly emanate from the vested interests in both the broadcasting and sporting fields.

Turning to new localised services, this question needs to be addressed fairly and squarely in the context of the current crisis in local and regional news provision. In broadcasting terms this has come about because of ITV’s increasing unwillingness to provide all of the services which it has done in the past, and because of Ofcom’s acquiescence in its retrenchment in this area. In terms of local and regional newspapers, this is largely because the conglomerates which own most titles have signally failed to invest in an online presence, and have milked their titles for all their worth in terms of excessive returns to shareholders and grossly inflated executive salaries. And these are exactly the same people who now claim that the only solution to the problem which they themselves have largely created is even further ‘consolidation’ at the local level, which in everyday language means the growth of local cross-media monopolies and a further feathering of the nests of those who have brought the local press to its present appalling state. In such a situation, what is needed above all else is an injection of diversity and competition, which the BBC, as an integral part of its public service remit, should be providing at every possible opportunity. Naturally the local oligopolies have lobbied against this possibility for all their worth, and naturally they have drawn their political allies into the fray, but, again, one really does not expect the BBC itself to aid them in their entirely self-interested campaign by giving in before battle has even been joined.

Conclusion

The BBC’s pusillanimity in the face of those who have done their utmost to wreck the local press, but who are also absolutely determined to ensure that the Corporation is not allowed to do a better job for local people, only intensifies our distinct impression that the BBC is either unable or willing to grasp the elementary fact that it is not only the Corporation’s own interests which are at stake in the processes outlined in the Review, but those of the wider public which, as a public service, it is supposed to be serving. The CPBF, like many other NGOs, is a strong (if sometimes critical) defender of public service media, but if the BBC cannot be trusted to take a firm and decisive lead in its own defence against what all informed opinion clearly recognises to be an entirely self-interested anti-BBC campaign by vested interests and their political allies, it is not only endangering the very principles of public service media which are entrusted to its care but also betraying those whom it exists to serve.

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