Oooo – he is a one, that Tony Hall!
There we were at City University, in the spirit of concerned relatives gathered around the hospital bed of a dying aunt, ready for yet another quiet chat (aka ‘seminar’) about the ever-fascinating topic of the BBC’s licence fee, when Lord Hall was suddenly amongst us. The D-G had startling news. He was prepared to do a deal, and we didn’t even know a serious negotiation was underway. Suddenly, Hall was less the ex-head of an opera house and more a cigar-chomping Louis B. Mayer.
Well, he began by citing Neil Gabler’s ‘inspiring’ book on the birth of Hollywood (An Empire of their Own) and, as he talked, I was minded more and more of a remark attributed to Mayer. Asked about a picture’s box office, he reportedly replied: ‘it’s stupendous, its terrific, its amazing, but its getting better’. In like wise, Tony Hall lauded BBC Production in a Blairian triad:
‘This is the team that created Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, Frozen Planet and The Thick of It. The team that created Mrs Brown’s Boys, Miranda, Bluestone 42, Our War and Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe. The team that delivers the Proms, the World Cup, the royal wedding, and our coverage of the world war one Centenary’.
But it's getting better.
Or rather it would be if it were no longer guaranteed any production money by the Corporation but had to bid for every penny of it in competition with outsiders. “Competition works just as you would expect,” he averred. ‘We do well. Others have to compete. They raise their game. They challenge us. We respond. Competition spurs us all on. It’s better for Britain.’
(What, you mean as with the railways, the banks, the utility companies? -- “Shut-up, at the back there” (Ed.).)
The 1990 Thatcherite Broadcasting Act – the ‘it-was-Rupert-wot-won-it’ legislation -- also required the Corporation to spend 25% of its programming funds with non-BBC producers. Although by the mid-90s it was already having trouble meeting this target, there is no question but the provision fuelled the growth of a vibrant production sector. In fact so vibrant is it that PACT, its trade union (sorry, ‘trade association’), wants more. Over the years, the system has indeed grown more complex, awash with the Orwellian ‘newspeak’ of Birtian managerialism. In essence, in addition to the 25%, the indies now have access to a further 25%, but not guaranteed access. This is the ‘WoCC’ -- the ‘Window of Creative Competition’ -- and they have to bid for it…. against BBC Production which anyway keeps all the other 50%. Tony Hall calls this ‘managed competition’. (Think: ‘light’ entertainment. The BBC has never offered heavy entertainment and, in the same way, ‘unmanaged’ competition is just as unimaginable -- the turkeys voting for Christmas.)
For PACT and among the stegeosaurian tendencies of some anti-BBC politicians, the logical end in view is clear: a BBC as a publisher/broadcaster. This is a consummation devoutly to be wished, given abolition – thanks primarily to Mr Hitler I always think – it is not on the cards. (Well, not yet.) But Hall is right to worry about such an obvious long-term threat. So, preemptively, he will give up the quotas in return for the BBC production arm becoming a player like any other. BBC would be able to make programmes for ITV, SKY, whomever. And they and the independents could get their stuff on the BBC. Total competition. Swings and roundabouts. The deal is brilliant. He is retreating the better to defend the perimeter – a ‘full-service’ BBC which still makes programmes as well as running channels, etc.
He could make an argument that, as the licence fee is now only 25% of the country’s broadcasting revenues, the BBC is no longer an overwhelming beast. In fact, he could point out that the independents are scarcely independent in an SME sense, not least because they are being snapped up by global media conglomerates. 21st Century Fox (isn’t that something to do with Rupert?) has crowbarred its way into Endemol and Shed is going to be Warner Bros, UK. In the face of these foreign predators, a plausible old-fashioned public service case in defence of the BBC’s production arm is easily mounted. Hall did mention these things – but as an aside.
Instead of using these facts as a valid basis for rolling back the quota system, he knows full well that neo-liberalism is not ready to die quite yet. In fact, it can be argued that the Cameron government shows it to be an ever more dangerous beast as its wounds further madden it. When the Prime Minster is reported to be firm in his defence of the BBC, it is time seriously to be concerned about its future. (After all, look what such promises have done for the NHS.)
So Hall eschews a frontal attack in favour of an ordered retreat. This is because he is proving himself to be the smartest D-G since the sainted Carleton Greene. I mean, he presents the arcana of the WoCC etc and a draconian scheme to save BBC production as a talk about ‘how we are bringing the spirit of the entrepreneur and the pioneer to the BBC’. Such nibble-footedness and talk-the-talk rhetoric is becoming a mark of his tenure. First the Reithian move to make treaties with other major, and embattled, cultural organisations and now this.
Hall left and we spent the rest of the morning going round the block one more time on the licence fee, the reason we had gathered in the first place. On this front, Hall had said almost nothing beyond the usual 40p-a-day value-for-money wonderful-programmes shibboleths. In so far as the WoCC issue impacted on the licence fee debate, he simply allowed that: ‘Any new system must obtain value for money for the licence fee payer’. This was ensured by his proposal, he said, because: ‘When the BBC owns the rights to programmes we can return the full commercial value of them to the UK licence fee payer, to invest in new programmes’. The D-G is playing a weak hand brilliantly; but the scrub-my-back-if-I-can-scrub-yours offer he here makes can well be refused. Let’s not forget that Mrs T. put oversight of the 25% quota in 1990 in the hands of the Office of Fair Trading. So either the BBC production company will smuggle in hypothecated tax money to compete for commercially generated funds with commercial production companies to provide profit-making platforms with content. Or it really will stand alone with no licence fee support and the battle (and the war) will have been totally lost. For those who love the Beeb, this is pretty desperate stuff really.
But this cloud was brushed aside as being no bigger than a person’s hand. The D-G understood that, in a quota-less free-for-all, competition “must be fair competition, too. We must make sure we don’t use the licence fee to compete unfairly or subsidise commercial activity’s value for money’. He did not expatiate on how this would be done and the howls of his competitors would be stilled. Obviously, for a man inspired by the story of Hollywood’s pioneers, chutzpah is going to be a stock in trade. In this instance, the chutzpah is simply to ignore even the most blatant flaws is what you are selling. Never mind the quality, as it were, feel the width. I mean, what is fiddling with the WoCC, ‘managed competition’ and ‘compete and compare’ to a man who can straight-facedly say, as he did in this speech: ‘If the BBC ever becomes a company of bureaucrats that happens to make some broadcast output I will have failed because the way we manage ourselves will have overwhelmed what we do’. Given the extensive documentation on the BBC’s culture, this is truly worthy of a Louis B. Mayer.
It seems to me that Hall’s well-written speech could well fall within another of that great man’s (supposed) aperçus: ‘A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’.