Forget long term strategy, the BBC needs to fix the 'now'

In the second of her 'On broadcasting' column, Lis Howell argues that the BBC urgently needs to put its house in order before turning to the big political issues of 2017. The licence fee and new technology aren’t necessarily the big issues - the real crisis is about management and the alienation of young people and young talent.

Lis Howell
17 June 2013

Charter renewal and the fate of the licence fee are at the top of the BBC’s agenda. The current Royal Charter runs out on December 31st 2016, having started in January 2007. The previous government had a three year run up to it last time, when it was discussed from here to eternity. That sort of lengthy process has been thrown out for this round by Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, who has a foot in the BIS camp as well. He says that last time it was too drawn out.

But Vaizey did say in April that he wanted the process of charter review this time to be a "public process engaging as many people as possible". Ironically the BBC’s Director of Strategy, James Purnell, was appointed in a private process engaging as few people as possible, but that isn’t stopping him gauging as many views as he can. He is currently seeing people in a series of sandwich lunches and breakfasts to find out what they think.

The licence fee is a unique and anomalous arrangement. Every household that uses a telly pays £145.50 a year.  So it’s a tax of sorts and it guarantees the BBC a large income. In return the BBC agrees under a Royal Charter (or more accurately, via an Agreement with the Home Secretary) to serve the public interest. 

Lots of people bang on about the licence fee. It’s a bit marmite. Those who hate it hate it. But unlike marmite, those who like it are generally a bit indifferent so it stays by default. Here are three current fashionable objections:

1)      Journalist and commentator Charles Moore calls it “the most regressive and most ruthlessly collected of all government imposts”

2)      At least one media commentator contends that the fact the BBC is paid for by the licence fee, opens it to far more trenchant criticism from the press than would otherwise happen.

3)      David Elstein, venerable media guru, argues that the licence fee limits the BBC’s creativity by forcing it to make a wide range of programmes, to appease the great British public. Well, that’s a crude way of putting his highly sophisticated argument but hopefully I’ve managed to grasp it…. 

My argument is that worrying about the licence fee is a waste of time. Taking each point:

  1. Charles Moore is right in many ways but his articulate arguments are largely against the licence fee in practice, and have the hallmarks of one of his great swashbuckling campaigns. It is true that the licence fee definitely needs some amendment. At the moment you need a licence fee to watch any form of live TV and a small but growing band of people – particularly young people – evade this by recording shows or watching on i-player. That is something which will have to be addressed, no doubt, as will the draconian means of collection and the confusion over what the licence fee actually funds. For example if you own a telly but only use it to put plants on the top, should you pay? In theory you should. But if you watch Dr Who on i-player you don’t need to divvy up. Daft. Some amendments for 2017, please.
  2. The second argument - that the licence fee causes a jealous, self funded press to bait the bloated BBC. Well, if it does, so what? It does the BBC good to be baited and the Beeb still emerges as one of the most confident organizations on the planet. 
  3. The third argument - David Elstein’s argument - is immensely well researched and compelling. He claims that because the BBC is funded by a sort of tax, it finds itself spending (or perhaps wasting) money retaining a high share of mid-market and conventional UK viewers. As a result it cannot afford to make the lucrative but costly glossy dramas that sell globally in a market led by the US. But I would reply that it isn’t part of the BBC Charter to be in the global market, and the Charter needs to exist in some form even if the licence fee disappears. It’s also arguable that the BBC wouldn’t be able to function reliably if it depended for a large slice of its income on the fluctuating funds from global sales – even if it was freed from making hundreds of yearly episodes of East Enders. But for me the biggest problem with David’s argument is that it flies in the face of what most Brits think the BBC is about – they believe it should reflect their tastes and culture as well as educating, informing and entertaining. They don’t care whether the BBC sells Sherlock Homes or The Fall to the USA and they don’t necessarily want glossy drama more than Antiques Roadshow. That’s not the BBC’s job. I really do like part of David’s argument as he develops it, which is that core programming could be funded by the licence fee and that subscription services could spin from it. But he and I would probably differ on what is meant by core. And interestingly this model already exists in the form of UK TV (but I don’t think that is the sort of offering David had in mind!)

Funnily enough, with the exception of an intellectual like David and some commentators and politicians, there really is no appetite for getting rid of, or even fundamentally changing, the licence fee. Try googling “against licence fee” and see how little information you get. As I write, there is a petition lodged on the government website asking for a referendum on the subject. It has about 4,500 signatures. An e-petition can be accessed for a year and this one ends on July 6th. I can’t tell how long the petition has been up and how many of the 4,500 have voted yes and how many have voted no. But compared to the campaign to rescue the Melida doll from Disney Princess-dom, the petition about a referendum on the licence fee doesn’t seem to be taking off.

I was invited to have a sarnie with James Purnell, presumably because of the combination of writing for openDemocracy and being Director of Broadcasting at City University, which gives me access to 80 TV and radio postgrad students. So I asked a group of students about the licence fee. Their response was one of indifference. Most paid it. It did not concern them in the least that it was a form of tax or that it was anomalous, or legally underpinned, or potentially hampering the BBC. To put it in their terms, they just got it and parked it. I wondered why they found this potentially controversial form of funding so uninteresting either intellectually or practically, and here are the reasons.

- Young people pay without thinking on a monthly tariff basis for their mobile phones. Most don’t use pay-as-you-go or bother to itemize costs. They just pay. It’s the norm for them in a way which it wasn’t for older generations, to pay for all sorts of content on devices and monitors. The licence fee is just more of the same.

- OK so it’s a sort of tax and it’s sort of weird. But when you google odd taxes it is nowhere near as odd as the Jock Tax in California, the playing card tax in Alabama or the cow flatulence tax in Ireland and Denmark. Try googling ‘7 crazy taxes’. The licence fee is nowhere near. 

- It’s not that much money to find (yes, these are students and that’s what they said!) and of course with five or six in a house share it comes to a small amount.

- Old people get it free so that’s okay isn’t it?

I did get lots of other messages back from the students about the BBC and the things they really cared about. Almost all our 80 students have ‘worked’ at the BBC – either on work experience schemes, or as shift workers in news rooms. The issues they wanted to raise were most definitely NOT about politics and the licence fee. They were about the risk-averse style of management, the lack of women in mid range editorial or reporting jobs, the predominance of women workers at a lower level than men, the amount of freelancers and low paid shift workers in newsrooms and production, and the terror of somehow not being in accord with the monolithic BBC news brand. Above all they were distressed about what they see as the impossibility of getting a ‘proper’ job in the BBC, an organization of 23,000 workers where there must (just by natural wastage) be about 300 journalistic vacancies a year! They cited the confusing number of training and entry schemes, the rigidity of the HR process, the odd rules about placements, the embarrassment of editors who want to give them chances but can’t. All this is in the laudable name of a sort of egalitarian dream which clearly does not translate to reality and leaves a lot of very talented, educated and diverse young students alienated. All of them care about fairness and diversity and they most definitely do not exude a sense of white middle class entitlement. Au contraire. But as good quality graduates with great commitment to broadcasting, and soon to have a top class MA behind them, they did not feel it was even worth trying to get employment at the Beeb.

I wonder if Mr Purnell found that at all interesting? My points weren’t about politics or technology unfortunately. They were about structure and management – not nearly so sexy. But you can think about future proofing on technology all you like, plus all the political lobbying; and you can talk (and in fairness, listen) endlessly - but the real urgent issues of the BBC at this point are not strategic in that sense. They are organisational. It doesn’t matter how much blue sky thinking (or even blue Sky thinking) you do if your broadcasting organisation is not being properly run. There is a huge issue about management culture within the BBC. That is the biggest and most demanding issue and it must be addressed.  My students went as far to suggest as big problems:

- institutional misogyny

- massive over-management

- duplicatory and contradictory management

- a strange disregard for recruiting great young talent

- an undisclosed reliance on the cheap freelance labour of people with no prospects.

Ultimately these young people paid the licence fee without thinking twice – but work there? Not likely. By now many don’t really actually want to go there even if the chance arises. How bad is that!

It means that the thinking – yes, strategic thinking – should start with how the place is run now and the most serious concern about the future should be about the talent that is being missed. That is what matters most. If bright young journalism postgrads feel more welcomed at Sky News, that is terrible news for the BBC. Political and long-term strategy come a long way behind.

So please, address the muffin of middle management, the executives with conflicting titles and confusing overlapping roles, the lack of women on screen, the fact that there may be 23,000 workers but there are hundreds more second class workers on daily rates or contracts who will never be that special something – a BBC employee. Reorganise the entry level system. Have a new graduate training scheme. There is nothing shameful or elitist about that. The BBC used to have a scheme where it paid the fees of some students on postgrad schemes, but that got thrown out a few years ago. But it should be brought back. It needn’t exclude other schemes. You should bring in a whole raft of smart young people who will do all the blue sky thinking you need because it’s the air they breathe. 

I once worked for a company where the executives spent hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds trying to second guess the future, trying to talk to the ‘right’ people, scrabbling to make the right connections, to buy the latest trendy subsidiary and to be across every new technical development. Guess what? That company no longer exists. And even the mighty Beeb could go that way if it lets strategy get in the way of the now.

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