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BBC Charter renewal: invisible actors and critical friends

If the corporation is to defend itself against powerful vested interests it must work more closely with critical friends across the political spectrum. 

Julian Petley
26 July 2015

The Sunday Times, 12 July 

When the DCMS Green Paper on BBC Charter Renewal was published on 16 July, the reaction on the part of the corporation’s enemies in the press was relatively muted, particularly when compared to the way in which they had reacted, a few days earlier, to the leaked news of the upcoming consultation.  

Thus the paper which (seemingly inevitably) broke the story, The Sunday Times, 12 July, under the headline ‘Tories Give BBC Reform Ultimatum’, announced that:

'the BBC will be told to return to its public service roots and do away with highly commercial programmes such as The Voice as part of the widest ranging shake-up of the corporation for a generation. Last night John Whittingdale, the culture secretary, appointed a board of eight advisers with a brief to conduct “root-and-branch” reform of the corporation as part of the process of renewal of its royal charter, which will expire at the end of 2016.'

In reality, far from the BBC being ‘told’ to do anything, it was merely to be the subject of a consultation. And as for the advisers, they were exactly that, with no powers whatsoever to ‘conduct reform’ of anything at all. Such nonsense was repeated in the next day’s Times (‘Embattled BBC Faces Curbs on Website and Reality Shows’), which also added into the already febrile mix ‘a review of the impartiality of its news service.’ The Mail followed suit, stating that ‘the review will look at its commitment to impartiality, following Conservative complaints that the broadcaster showed persistent anti-Tory bias during the election campaign.’

Meanwhile a story in the Sun by its political editor Tom Newton Dunn, headed ‘Fury at “Poll Tax” for BBC’, confidently (and entirely wrongly) predicted that ‘ministers will propose plans this week for a controversial new TV poll tax to fund the BBC. The idea is to replace the license fee with a new levy on every household.’ This was followed up by a story in the Telegraph, 16 July, which announced that ‘middle-class families will be forced to pay more for the licence fee than poorer households under plans for a Finnish-style means-tested broadcasting levy to pay for the BBC.’  

No wonder, then, that on 14 July, Lord Fowler complained in the Lords that ‘briefings and leaks have been the characteristic so far of what is billed as an open and transparent process. If you want to know what is going on in the discussion on the future of the BBC, do not ask the BBC Trust, read the Sunday Times.’ And no wonder, too, that there were those in the anti-BBC camp who expressed a sense of disappointment when they saw what was actually in the consultation document. For example, in the Mail, 17 July, Quentin Letts, who, in the course of a characteristically unpleasant, personalised attack on shadow culture secretary Chris Bryant, remarked: ‘What an undercurried, bland dish this Green Paper proved to be.’  Similarly, Stephen Glover in the same day’s paper complained that ‘the Green Paper seems rather too attached to the licence fee for my liking.’

After the Green Paper was published, culture secretary John Whittingdale was reported by the Guardian, 17 July, as remarking of the pre-publication stories that ‘half of what was written was complete fiction’, comparing them to ‘Booker prize nominations.’ However, the initial leak to The Sunday Times must have come from somewhere, and Chris Bryant in the same article was quoted as accusing Whittingdale of being either ‘asleep at the wheel of his department or he’s broken the ministerial code and has to go.’ When it comes to matters pertaining to broadcasting, relations between Tory governments and The Sunday Times have been particularly close ever since the paper was bought by Murdoch, but in the absence of any hard evidence either way, one can only speculate about the stories’ origins.  

The language of the market

At first glance, at least, the Green Paper is nothing like as hostile to the BBC as prior reports of it had suggested. It adopts the language of consultation (‘one option that could be considered’, ‘all options will be considered’, and so on). Furthermore, most of the nineteen questions which it poses to potential respondents are reasonably open. And yet there is something disturbing about it, as has been pointed out by various contributors here, for example.  

Firstly, it far too frequently utilises the inappropriate language of the market. Thus it states that ‘high quality PSB content has generally been seen as a “merit good” which would be under-provided in a free market’, and then goes on to represent public service broadcasting in an overly narrow and restrictive fashion by arguing that ‘PSBs such as the BBC still deliver positive effects for society such as extending democratic knowledge through news and current affairs, helping extend the UK’s influence and reputation abroad, addressing needs of audiences such as minority language groups, and serving audiences (such as children) where excessive advertising would be inappropriate. These goods would not be provided in sufficient volume by the market alone’ (p.14).

The Green Paper’s consideration of the BBC’s public purposes, which are enshrined in the Charter and Agreement, also reveals a narrow conception of what constitutes public service broadcasting. Those purposes are: sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities; bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK; and delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services. The Green Paper argues that:

'there is a case for reform of the purposes. They are very broad, and arguably it would be difficult for any programme or activity not to fall within one of them. By being cast so broadly, they do not reference directly key genres such as drama, natural history and news, widely considered to be at the core of what the BBC delivers’. But then we come to what, in the context of the document as a whole, is the real nub of the matter, namely that ‘they also do not set clear boundaries for what is or isn’t appropriate output from the BBC. So arguably, criticisms levelled at the BBC for being too large or too diffuse in what it does could be seen as a consequence of these very broad purposes.' (p.16)

‘Unfair’ competition

So if the BBC is seen as providing, rightly, content that the market cannot or will not deliver, the flipside of this is concern that it is duplicating, wrongly, material that commercial operators are perfectly happy to provide – for a price – and is competing ‘unfairly’ with them. This is a complaint which has resounded almost daily for years in the pages of those national newspapers opposed to the BBC on both economic and ideological grounds, and it gets a thorough and extensive airing in the Green Paper which summarises the situation thus:

‘There is much to support a continuation of the BBC’s current mission … But it is not without its critics. In particular, it is a very broad mission, and one that risks the BBC competing for ratings not quality, or distinctiveness, under the “entertainment” banner. On balance, the government believes that the arguments in favour of maintaining this historic mission are sound, although changes to the purposes, scale and scope may be required to ensure this does not result in an overly extended BBC.’ (p.15)

But ‘overly extended’ by whose standards and in what terms, exactly? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the standards and terms at issue here are those of the BBC’s commercial competitors across the media landscape. As the Green Paper puts it: 

‘Now digital television switchover has been completed and as the number of television and radio channels grow and the internet as a platform for television and radio content matures, there are counter arguments that the BBC does not need to be providing such a broad range of services in order to meet its public service objectives. There is also an argument that some of the services might be serving significantly overlapping audiences – failing to be sufficiently distinct not only from commercial output, but from other BBC services … Given the vast choice that audiences now have there is an argument that the BBC might become more focused on a narrower, core set of services that can continue to meet its mission and objectives. A smaller BBC could see the public pay less for their TV licence and would also be likely to have a reduced market impact.’ (p.23)

Positive and negative ‘market impact’

‘Market impact’ brings us back, by definition, to the matter of the language of the market. And it also brings us on to the most worrying part of the report, p.25, which lays out the positive and negative ‘market impacts’ made by the BBC. Significantly, there are two of the former and five of the latter. In positive terms, ‘some say [sic] that the BBC has an impact in raising broadcasting standards’, and ‘the BBC’s ability to spend large amounts on both the people in its organisation and in UK content can result in positive effects for the creative industries, including independent producers, and in training skills and talent that benefit commercial parties, too.’

Negatively, the commercial television and radio sectors may struggle to compete with freely distributed BBC content. There are ‘suggestions that the scale of BBC’s online offer is impeding the ability of other UK news outlets to develop profitable business models, such as paywalls and subscriptions, in existing and new markets.’ By providing a wide range of content online as well as on radio and TV, the BBC could have an impact on ‘efforts by local news groups to develop compelling online local and hyper-local services.’ And finally, ‘the BBC’s ability to cross-promote its own services has an impact on the wider market … Given other services are not able to advertise their content on the BBC there is a case for arguing that the nature and extent of this cross-promotion needs to be considered.’ 

Such arguments are not overtly endorsed by the Green Paper, which is, after all, simply a consultation document, but they do run through it like a particularly insistent leitmotiv. Here they are again, for example: the BBC 

'provides a range of programming which is arguably less distinctive from the content that its commercial competitors provide. In providing audiences with popular content the BBC is able to reach a wide base of licence fee payers, and an element of popular programming is essential to the BBC continuing to deliver services that audiences want to access. However, concerns have been raised that the BBC behaves in an overly commercial way, encroaching on TV genres and formats that could be served well by its commercial competitors.' (p.38)  

Later on, such concerns are raised in the specific context of BBC Worldwide, when the Green Paper warns that ‘it is important for UK licence fee payers that BBC output is not driven solely by the consideration of its retail value in international markets. Equally, the impact that the sale of BBC intellectual property has on other UK broadcasters and producers, who may also be seeking to market British content to an international audience, must be given serious consideration’. It then adds that the Charter Review ‘will consider the full range of options for reforming the BBC’s commercial operations, including full or part privatisation of Worldwide’, which then leads on to one of the Reviews closed questions, namely: ‘How should the BBC’s commercial operations, including BBC Worldwide, be reformed?' (61).

This, it hardly needs pointing out, is very different from asking merely whether they should be reformed. 

‘A team of assistant gravediggers’

Anxiety has been expressed in pro-BBC quarters about the members of the advisory group mentioned earlier. Thus Broadcast stated that ‘the consensus is that the group are talented and experienced but lack obvious empathy or sympathy for the BBC. There are also concerns that they may pursue their own commercial agendas at the expense of the Corporation.’ On the other side of the divide, The Times, 13 July, helpfully published a run-down on the ‘reform-minded’ members of the panel members, which suggested that they were in tune with much of the thinking behind the Green Paper. Once again, then, the debate has been distorted by the eagerness of the BBC’s enemies in the press to present the panel as a demolition crew, which, in turn, has helped to provoke the corporation’s allies into attacking them as such. 

Thus Stewart Lee in the Guardian, 19 July, called them ‘a veritable human centipede of business-minded entities’ whose task was to ‘reform the BBC out of existence.’ Lord Fowler complained that ‘the advisory group advising the Secretary of State clanks with special interests and past opinions’ and the former BBC chairman Lord Patten called the panel ‘a team of assistant gravediggers’ who would help the culture secretary to ‘bury the BBC that we love.’ A much more nuanced view has been taken by Lis Howell on OurBeeb, and it would surely be sensible to wait and see what the advisory group actually advises before passing further judgement. 

‘Crushing plurality and stifling debate’

Although I suggested earlier that the reaction to the Green Paper in papers hostile to the BBC was relatively muted, it should be noted that they lost no opportunity to hone in on those aspects which suited their commercial interests. Thus, for example, The Times, 17 July, in a leader entitled ‘Slimming Auntie’ with the strapline ‘The culture secretary intends to put the BBC on a diet. A well-padded and expansive broadcaster should swallow it’, argued that the BBC cannot be all things to all people, and that:

'in a multichannel universe in which the internet increasingly competes with television, the BBC should be ready to identify what it does best and can do better. At the same time it must rein in what George Osborne has called its "imperial" online ambitions. The corporation is a broadcaster, not a publisher. It cannot expect a renewed charter to endorse a status quo that lets it trample on private sector rivals with public funds. Technology has allowed the BBC to expand as if on steroids.'

Yet the article is remarkably ignorant about the institution which it is so keen to criticise, claiming that the public consultation ‘will be the first big debate on the BBC's role in the digital age. It will be the first to question in earnest the basis of the licence fee in 70 years.’  But, as David Elstein has pointed out, the latter claim simply ignores previous inquiries by Beveridge (1949), Pilkington (1962), Annan (1977) and Peacock (1986), and the former writes out of history Gavyn Davies’ 1999 report on the BBC’s digital strategy.

Meanwhile, the Mail, 17 July, noted that the paper itself ‘has long argued that the Corporation's massive website and proliferation of channels and local radio stations are crushing plurality and stifling debate. We believe its relentless expansion at taxpayers' expense must be curbed.’

Invisible actors

The Mail was also quite obsessed by the letter written in defence of the BBC by a number of stars, a letter which, it turned out, had actually been instigated by the BBC itself. By normal journalistic standards this was hardly an earth- shattering revelation, although it would obviously have been preferable if the BBC had been open from the start about the origins of the letter. However, proving yet again that the Mail is an entirely irony free zone, the paper railed that it was ‘a crude attempt by the BBC to manipulate the national debate’ and warned its readers to expect from the BBC ‘more hysterical shroud-waving and deception as the consultation period goes on.' 

Hysteria? Deception? Manipulation? Nothing, of course, which the Mail and the BBC’s other enemies in the press would ever dream of engaging in and, as always, the papers’ own role as actors in the stories with which they daily regale their readers is entirely unacknowledged and completely airbrushed out of the proceedings. However, press partisanship and self-interest are two of the main reasons why it is, and will continue to be, so very difficult to have a sensible public debate about the future of the BBC, since key sections of the media, which ought to be informing their readers about an issue of considerable public interest, are doing their utmost to influence the way in which that issue is being thought about and played out. 

It was thus quite breathtakingly disingenuous of Stephen Glover in the Mail, 17 July, to accuse BBC senior management of being ‘hysterical’ and ‘over defensive’ when he and the paper for which he writes have played such a key role in helping to bring about in the first place the situation in which the BBC now finds itself.

Pusillanimity and arrogance

Of course, the BBC is very far from being beyond reproach when it comes to dealing with criticism. First of all, it has always been far too pusillanimous when it comes to facing down its enemies in the press. Thus it never takes advantage of Sections 320(3)(a) and (b) of the Communications Act 2003, which relieve it of certain of its impartiality obligations when it comes to dealing with matters pertaining to its own programming. It regularly gives a platform to those who habitually slag it off in the press, a particularly egregious example being Melanie Phillips of The Moral Maze fame, with Quentin Letts (What’s the Point Of …?) coming a close second. And finally, it gives vast amounts of entirely free publicity to newspaper stories (many of which would breach the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines if they were put out by the corporation itself) in programmes such as Today, BBC Breakfast and Newsnight. Would-be funny voices on What the Papers Say are absolutely no substitute at all for a sustained, critical and rigorous engagement with Britain’s national newspapers along the lines of Channel 4’s much-missed Hard News.  

On the other hand, however, there are occasions when the BBC gets its public responses to matters pertaining to it seriously wrong. In this respect its terse and peppery response to the Green Paper seemed distinctly ill-judged – more like a reaction to the rumours about the document spread by the press in the days before its publication than a considered response to the Green Paper itself.  Charges of arrogance against the Corporation cannot conveniently be dismissed simply because they emanate so frequently from its enemies in the press.  The BBC does have friends within the Tory party, and indeed even within the Tory press (vide Peter Oborne), and, as David Elstein has pointed out, it will do itself no favours in the crucial months ahead if it acts as if faced by a united Tory anti-BBC front. 

Furthermore, if it wants support from elsewhere on the political/ideological spectrum it is going to have to make alliances with what John Ellis rightly calls its ‘critical friends’, namely those who strongly support the principles of public service broadcasting but believe that the BBC too often fails to live up to them, particularly in matters of diversity, accountability, impartiality and so on. This may not be easy for the BBC, given its extreme and long-standing prickliness to criticisms of this sort, however well-intentioned.

It is crucial to realise that what will be at stake in the debates around the Green Paper and Charter renewal is actually the future of public service broadcasting, of which the BBC is but a trustee, albeit the key one in the UK. These will have to be defended against a whole range of powerful and influential vested interests, and they are going to need all the friends they can get, including the BBC’s critical ones. In return, and painful though it may be, the BBC is going to have to admit that it isn’t always right.

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