The BBC's shoot a small puppy strategem

The BBC Strategy Review is given a duly cynical reading by Richard Collins
Richard Collins
12 April 2010

For connoisseurs of elaborated procedures, the BBC’s Strategy Review provides abundant testimony that the to-ing and fro-ing, walking forwards and backwards, and rituals of self-importance embodied in Louis XIV’s court etiquette and the procedures of the Sublime Porte have returned from the dead. For the 2010 Strategy Review to have issued from Trust Towers in Great Portland Street the Trust has had to request the BBC Director-General to formulate proposals; him to submit them to the Trust; the Trust (after indicating both that it wants to do further work on the executive’s proposals and that “the core vision and principles set down by the director general provide the right response”) to open them to public consultation, and only then can the Trust define and issue its definitive “asks” to the BBC executive.

But it won’t be over then. For anything significant to actually happen, the executive will then have to apply formally, and separately for each service in question, to the Trust for permission to make changes; the Trust will undertake a formal “public value test” (involving a market impact assessment undertaken with Ofcom, public consultation, consultation with the BBC’s audience councils and, if a new service is under consideration, securing approval from the department of culture, media and sport which retains a right of veto over the introduction of new BBC services), publish its provisional determination, (normally) publicly consult on it and only then issue a decision on which the executive may act. Wot larks.

If the Strategy Review is rich in procedural interest it may be judged deficient in substance: “much ado about not very much” would be a good title. What’s actually proposed and why has so small a mouse issued from so impressive an elephant? The BBC executive (and remember this is judged, at least provisionally, by the Trust to embody “the right response”) proposes to: put quality first, do fewer things better, guarantee access, make the licence fee work harder and set new boundaries.

Could anyone possibly object? Still more could anyone, other than the kind of hardened cynic who refers to mice and elephants in this context, object to proposals to provide the best journalism in the world, inspire knowledge, music and culture, provide ambitious UK drama and comedy, outstanding children’s content and events that bring communities and the nation together? All this is OK so far as it goes. The problem is it doesn’t go very far.

What’s proposed is fine – just as no-one could object to putting quality first (only the cynic would ask “Why is this new? Where’s it been so far?”), no-one (almost no-one) could object in principle to reducing management headcount and freezing the highest salaries (though they might ask why were there so many and why were they paid so much if henceforth they can done without?). Nor could one reasonably object to rebalancing expenditure by curtailing activities that haven’t worked too well or are at the margins of core business so as to reinforce core activities.

True, there is fuzziness about the detail: what’s the difference between the proposal to cut overheads to 10% of spend (ie allocate 90% to content and distribution) and reduce “the costs of running the BBC” to 9p in the pound? But all that leads to is the reader acknowledging that these are moves in the right direction. The next step is to look at the detail and see how costs are allocated and whether there is more to this than management accountancy smoke and mirrors. Similarly sensible, in principle, is partnering with the likes of the British Library to improve access; capping spending on sports rights and imported programming and complementing as well as competing with other providers.

Where the crunch comes is in choosing the sacrificial lambs. The BBC proposes, with the sublime cunning that cynical BBC watchers know, love, and love to hate, to close two radio services – the Asian Network and 6 Music (and some of its web offerings). At a time when the government (whoever that is) is ramping up to digital radio switchover (a solution looking for a problem in my view), to propose closure of two of the UK’s digital only radio services (all of the digital only radio services together account for only about 4 percent of radio listening - so to close two services is a big hit in this rather rarefied digital atmosphere) and to choose one service that is clearly for people not like me (white, male, middle class, getting on for dead) and another that’s (as the howls of pain from its listeners have testified) really providing something that’s not provided by commercial broadcasters can only be described as genius.

This is, of course, genius of a Machiavellian kind, providing the BBC with a win-win scenario. If the sacrificial lamb radio services are closed, the BBC has shown it’s willing to tighten its belt and take the pain. But, please note, the smallest possible pain – these are the BBC’s tiniest national services. Or, to be more precise services available to the fewer than 90 percent who live in areas where digital radio can be received, don’t want to listen in the car and are among those who have a digital radio in the house. It’s making its contribution at a time when public finances are in trouble. And if they don’t close, then there’s prima facie evidence that what the BBC does is indispensible.

It’s a shoot the puppy strategy. And not only is it a shoot the puppy strategy but it’s also a shoot a very small puppy strategy. For what’s being proposed is tiny in comparison to the overall size, level of output and revenues of the BBC. Basically, the Strategy Review is a “business as usual” proposition with a “shoot the puppy” plastic daffodil added to the familiar basic product. The BBC has an annual income of about £4.5bn – the rather meagre detail offered in the Strategy Review suggests that the expenditure of that £4.5bn may not change very much. Remember that the executive are proposing to “put quality first”? Putting quality first means, in one of the few specifics given, increasing spending on children’s output by £10m a year. This hardly seems like a big change in a £4.5bn a year organisation. Much ado about not very much?

Moreover, the extra spend on children’s output will take effect only from 2013, a year which, coincidentally, is the year in which a new licence fee settlement will be implemented. Imagine the scenario in 2012: government says “You’ve had a lot of money over the last five years, competitors have had their revenues fall and public finances need rebuilding. There’s going to be less for you in the next five years of this Charter period”. To which the BBC might say “Oh, but if you cut our licence fee we won’t be able to implement our putting quality first strategy. We won’t be able to spend an extra £10m (of course the specific sum won’t be mentioned) on children’s output. You don’t want that do you?”.

One could elaborate this scenario (a party game? A pitch to a commissioning editor?). But basically it’s a reversioning of a familiar gambit: pay up or we shoot the (small) puppy. To connoisseurs, this is vintage BBC. It is an adroit if blatant early move in a long-term chess game with government over the next BBC funding round. The Strategy Review thus has as much for connoisseurs of bureaucratic game playing as it has for those who like procedural indirectness and over-elaboration.

It’s well worth a read. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s actually about the future of 6 Music or the Asian Network – whether or not these pawns fall matters little in these early stages of manoeuvring for a new licence fee settlement. The first move is an inventive combination of two classic gambits: shoot the puppy and much ado about not very much. Full marks to the grand master in Broadcasting House who crafted the Strategy Review.

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