The BBC's imaginary crossroads

Tony Hall’s speech on March 2 was full of invented threats. This was a denial of the imminent need for change: the BBC needs rivals and the UK needs more voices. 

Lis Howell
9 March 2015

Flickr/strollerdos: BBC Television Centre, Panorama

Lis gave an immediate response to the speech here, on the BBC Media Show (4 March). 

On 2 March Tony Hall gave a speech in the radio theatre of Broadcasting House in which he described the BBC as being at a crossroads. It was an odd description. It’s a time of change, certainly – when isn’t? - But is it a crossroads?  What are these diametrically opposed paths which could be taken?

I think this was the sort of slightly alarmist language that characterises the BBC’s current presentation of itself. There isn’t a crisis but they have to invent one. It’s a rallying approach, shown in phrases like “we have to support the BBC” or “we stand to lose the best broadcasting system known to man” or “critics of the BBC should be firmly challenged” or even “there are forces in this country who want to destroy the BBC” - that sort of thing. I have heard each one these phrases uttered by BBC employees or consultants at recent debates about the BBC. But it is really so much less of a drama than that, and this phoney war is a way of bludgeoning us into accepting everything about the BBC: 

  1. The BBC is not going to be abolished.
  2. For the next few years at least it will still be funded by the licence fee, levied on all households which watch live television.
  3. Although a recent House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee report on the future of the BBC suggested it was too large and too inefficient, there were no draconian plans for changing that.
  4. The BBC Trust (its governing body) looks as if it is for the chop (the CMS report said The BBC should have a unitary board with a non-executive Chair, who would be known as the BBC Chairman), but the Trust is not the BBC, and if the Trust goes there is no threat to “Strictly” or “BBC News at Ten
  5. In fact the CMS Committee, really, seems to think that in essence it should stay the same. 
  • So let’s start with the new Charter. Yes, the BBC’s Royal Charter will be renewed once the election brouhaha is over. The licence fee paid by every household which watches live television, on any channel, brings in around £4 billion. It pays for the BBC and also for some other very minor initiatives like the new local television channels in places like Norwich and Nottingham. But crucially it is not the BBC’s money, and how it is apportioned at the broad brush level should be in the hands of our elected government, not a group of BBC executives. The CMS committee agreed that the licence fee is workable in the near future, but that it needs to be revised within the next five years or so because of the change in television viewing, with increasing ‘catch-up’ rather than live TV. This is just common sense. The licence fee will soon be outdated and we need to be thinking now about how to replace it and what it should cover (see Tony Ageh on OurBeeb).

Of course the downside of any form of central, government-led funding for the BBC is that if you get given money you have to justify how you spend it, which is very tedious for BBC executives being hauled in front of Margaret Hodge when they could be in vital meetings back at NBH – mind you, with 380 senior managers there are probably enough people to cover for their absence! But seriously, I am sure ITV or Channel Four would love more public money at the expense of a few submissions to various government committees. So not really a crossroads there, more a sort of gentle roundabout with a few possible routes - all keeping the show on the road.

So what about the Committee’s chairman’s comments that  “when an organisation is in receipt of nearly £4 billion of public money, very big questions have to be asked about how that money is provided and spent, and how that organisation is governed and made accountable.” Well isn’t that fair and reasonable? It’s hardly throwing down any sort of gauntlet. The Committee does not say “cut the number of managers” or even “cut the number of managers by the number you said you would“.  (Interestingly, Tony Hall seemed to be getting out of that one by suggesting on Radio 4’s Media Show, that they perhaps should change the definition of manager … cynical, moi?) But even this hardly constitutes a crossroads.

So what has caused this emotional language? If the crossroads is not to do with the way the BBC is funded or governed what is it about?

What Tony Hall actually said was that "the BBC is at a crossroads where it can either continue as a national standard bearer for the creative industries at home and abroad or “sleep-walk into decay”.  I think this is an imaginary crossroads which Tony Hall wishes to get us all excited about, a bit like inventing an enemy to focus morale. The CMS committee has of course looked at the BBC’s role in British creative industries but has come to a different conclusion. Even so it has voiced its findings as observations not recommendations. The committee says: 

- The BBC has tried for too long to provide "something for everyone": it should reduce provision in areas where others are better placed to deliver excellence and better value for money, and make bigger, braver decisions on its strategy.

- The BBC should seek to do more in partnership with others. It should also support local media through extending the indie quota to include local news.

- The BBC must demonstrate transparency to eliminate suspicions of cross-subsidy of its commercial work if it is to produce content for others.

These are actually quite gentle points but they niggle at the BBC. I imagine Tony Hall’s biggest fear is that other British broadcasters might get in on the act and give the BBC a run for its money, literally. To drive this home, he has made an impassioned plea for the BBC to be funded, and politically supported, so it can go on making British-led programmes to sell to the world. But actually this doesn’t make any sense at all. British production, British ideas, British talent, do not need an umbrella brand – just look at the film business taking the Oscars by storm.

The BBC needs a reality check. It is just an organisation, a transmitter often of other peoples’ programmes as well as a maker of its own. There is absolutely no reason why it should be as big as Sony or Netflix, neither of which is a national broadcaster – the BBC is an entirely different animal. It does not have a monopoly on British talent. If the BBC didn’t exist, something else would. The talented people born, educated and trained in Britain would still exist. The creation of Channel Four showed that creativity can blossom outside the BBC. It seems convenient to forget now that some of the best drama of the 1970s – the so-called ‘golden age‘ of British television, with programmes like  “Jewel in the Crown”, “Brideshead Revisited”, “Coronation Street” were made by a strong ITV. That did not crowd out the BBC – it actually formed a creative environment in which the BBC flourished too.

But now the BBC is scared. Instead of welcoming a sort of Public Service fund where some proportion of the licence fee money could go to support other broadcasting voices, it wants to embrace everything and be everything. What this actually means is that about 380 people (those BBC managers) would become the guardians of British culture. I find this nationalist tub thumping really rather embarrassing and actually, to tell you the truth, a bit un-British! What happened to our cherished divisions? Yes of course there are now other new outlets; voices like Russia Today or Vice TV (vastly different and very controversial) have come into being on our screens. But they aren’t British. We are actually getting narrower, with only one dominant news supplier, while the rest of the world is broadening. In the UK, the ITV News Channel tragically died a death. Sky News is still just one channel. Channel 4 news is only one programme. With the exception of the minimally funded local TV which has just started very tentatively on a shoestring, the TV news landscape hasn’t changed for a decade in the UK while it is burgeoning everywhere else. Could this have something to do with the dominance of the BBC?

Of course Channel 4 still has a small share of viewing. But what about what used to be the mighty ITV which really could provide us with a genuine news alternative? Currently, ITV News at Ten gets about 2 million viewers, less than half of BBC News at Ten. This is not because the BBC is better at basic news values or reporting. ITV News at Ten recently walked away with awards at the Royal Television Society journalism awards. But ITN does not have anything like the BBC funding, nor does ITV News at Ten have the huge cross promotion opportunities available at the BBC. Why shouldn’t some of the licence fee (or the new household levy) go towards supporting ITN (of course there is the issue of private shareholdings but that could be sorted) precisely to ensure that the BBC doesn’t dominate?

In addition, why does the BBC have to run local radio and local television news? It does so with one brand from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and it also does so, in my view, with a very dodgy system of employing freelancers and short term contractors. A funded independent local news provider up and down the country would do far more to ensure local identity and involvement in regions and nations, than Tony Hall artificially cementing us together with same branded formatted programmes. Why not some money for a new company, ITV Local? It could pump funds into local news, documentaries and politics. Once upon a time Granada Reports and Border Lookaround (one huge, one tiny) were a real alternative to the BBC, often more popular, and often campaigning and idiosyncratic. Now, all local news, ITV and BBC, looks the same. It is in fairness very high quality. But it’s not very distinctive. I’d rather more of my licence fee went to that, than to competing with Sony or Amazon.

That’s only me. But, hold on, isn’t it going to be all about me? Aren’t we now going to have ‘My BBC’ tailored for me? I have no objection – except for the assumption that all we want or need is on the BBC. It’s just a tiny bit scary, don’t you think? We really need to hear it for plurality in the UK Media scene. When international media is expanding a rate of knots, and more and more is available, the next government is being asked to put all its eggs in the basket of the BBC because of two false arguments – one about ‘national cultural identity’ and the other about fighting international competition. The first argument gives me the creeps and the second I know to be misguided.

Creativity needs rivalry and risk. Giving even more money to the BBC will stifle this, even with “Compete or Compare”, Tony Hall’s plan for opening up BBC production. That is another argument, but it does point up a contradiction where the Director General seems to be calling for a free-for-all on one level, but wanting assured government support for endless unquestioned funding on the other. In fact, when you read Tony Hall’s speech it is quite hard to find what it is he is whipping us up for. What does he actually want? Tis genteel rabble-rousing boils down to a sort of blanket understanding that the BBC is Britain and that we should all love and support it forever. Well, OK - but there is tough love too….

And that means that the BBC needs strong competition. It’s rivalry and excitement that keep the blood flowing and stop “sleepwalking into decay”. Those of us who have worked in TV for decades know that it can never be safe, but it is safest when there is a little funding for a lot of varied outlets, all making great material, rather than a lot of funding for one monolith. That is the one thing which does lead to decay – a bloated body where the blood can’t get to the extremities. Too much uncritical love and too much pocket money can spoil the brightest child. We mustn’t do that to the BBC.    

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