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"Everybody pays so everybody should get something from the BBC. It’s not the same as saying the BBC should do everything – you need to make sure you are using the scale of the BBC and its ambition to deliver to licence fee payers."
Andrew Scadding, Head of Corporate and Public Affairs, is the BBC man at the heart of Charter Renewal. “Everyone should be aware of the importance [of this process] – it decides what the BBC can do, the scope – what’s involved in TV, Radio, online. It gives the ability to make decisions on long term things…”
He admits that “like the rest of the public sector” the BBC is under pressure financially. The last five or six years have seen a licence freeze at a time when costs have gone up. “We’ve had to make tough choices. Licence fee spend was about 27 per cent less than it was a few years ago. We had to take on additional obligations like funding broadband roll out, local TV, looking at other ways of working on the World Service.”
The many headlines over the last year which have suggested the end is nigh for the BBC licence fee seem prescient. The unexpected speed with which people have moved to online viewing has left the BBC racing to plug a £150m hole ahead of the Charter Renewal negotiations. Tony Hall, the BBC’s Director General, recently announced over 1000 job cuts. Many back office and managerial functions will be wiped out.
In February this year a Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee issued a detailed 166-page report on these issues. It considered evidence given by key witnesses and enjoyed strong cross-party support. Crucially, the report concluded that the BBC - a public service broadcaster reaching 96% of the UK population - should be paid for via a ‘universal tax.’ While a group of MPs said the TV licence does not have a long-term future and is ‘becoming harder to justify’, they nonetheless established that it’s here to stay, at least for the time being. The fee could therefore see its centenary in 2022.
Andrew laughs as he recalls the last time around when Tessa Jowell looked at the BBC’s Charter Renewal blueprint and said that the public thought it was too serious: “they wanted more emphasis on entertainment.” Earlier this year, in her first speech as BBC Trust chairman, Rona Fairhead said the new Charter should be up for public debate and not ‘conducted by a small elite'. So how do you guard against an entrenched group of very senior people monopolising the outcome?
“The public can make their views known and so can politicians. Over the last few years we’ve started building partnerships with external organisations. Anything from local newspapers - crediting stories that we might run - to making our training available across the industry. Obviously, the economics of local industry make it very difficult for even the most successful newspaper groups to invest in training. We had a very successful partnership with the British museum with 100 objects a couple of years ago, the natural history museum and so forth. That makes the BBC a place that’s bringing people in.”
But how does consultation work? It’s a colossal task. “It’s largely a matter for the BBC Trust and government to decide. Last time around there was a heavy amount of consultation through polling and speaking to people through groups and finding out what they wanted. People can submit things through social media – it’s an important aspect.”
Will the BBC receive a fair deal? There looks to be something of a fight ahead.
“Going forward we have to do more with less. Less means less. There are some tough choices to be made if people expect us to deliver a tough financial settlement. We need to make strategic decisions that ensure the BBC stays relevant in terms of its content and the way we get that content to our audiences. The big challenge is being able to do two things: to continue to provide the services audiences want, and to invest in our own future to ensure we’re relevant in the internet age.”
Andrew argues that the BBC is one of the best things about Britain because of its role on the domestic and international stage, saying its investment and industries put it on the investment side of the equation, and not just the spend side. “You can make a choice: let the BBC wither and decay - and it will lose its centrality to what it does for Britain and the nation. Or, choose to invest in it and it will be one of the great things about Britain going into the next decades.”
Despite the rumour mill going into overdrive, Andrew says that support for the licence fee has increased to around 54%. That’s a 20% increase over a 20-year period. But there’s still work to do:
“We have to show that we’ve delivered on our commitments in the last Charter. That’s the first plan. We delivered on efficiency. Our track record compares very well with anything in government. I think that’s been accepted - DCMS were very complimentary about our efficiency record in their report, and that’s essential. We get a lot of public money - we have to show we are spending it properly. Audience appreciation is up. Value for Money is up - the metrics have definitely gone the right way. Amazing when you think of the proliferation of channels.”
“It’s not for the regulator to choose the system of regulation. The BBC was set up under Royal Charter to guarantee independence - so it’s not directly accountable under government or parliament in terms of what goes out as news… although increasingly, in recent years, elements in parliament are trying to hold us to account for editorial aspects as opposed to financial and strategy aspects. Parliamentary Committees want to question us on editorial output which is quite concerning.”
“The BBC has always gone along to parliament very willingly and appeared before Culture Media and Sports Select Committees: The Public Accounts Committee and The Lords Communications Committee. It’s about how we’re managing the public’s money - quite properly - but there’s also something about strategy both for the BBC and how we fit into the broadcasting landscape. Those have never been easy sessions.”
Running the BBC is not cheap. Is paid editorial on the horizon?
“I think we can avoid that. One of the things people like about the BBC is the fact that there are no adverts. They will pay for that. They like watching a drama all the way through with no adverts. And they like watching sport without interruption.” I nod in agreement – it’s hard to disagree and even the ‘next gen’ are starting to protest about adverts on You Tube, where content is free. In fact, Andrew is emphatic about the dizzying pace of change in broadcasting - driven by technology. Through this, there is space for public debate about the shape of Charter Renewal.
“This is a once in a decade chance to engage and that includes competitors. Most importantly, questions for customers: what do they want to see? They want genres – diversity. Is enough being provided? That’s all very important. How do we fit in? What is commercially available? How do we make ourselves distinctive from what’s already in the market? At the same time we are not turning ourselves into an American style Public Broadcaster.”
How does the BBC avoid that?
“We need to be careful not to become masters to everyone, to juggle the fine line… there’s a golden rule: it’s paid for by a universal licence fee. There are certain genres where the BBC can make a real impact by drawing in people from all walks of life across different channels. Take the WW1 season – everywhere from quite detailed historic documentaries on BBC4 to involving people at a local level in their communities through local radio, to BBC3 using filming and production techniques to draw a younger audience into an important part of our history.”
This success, though, was enabled by staff who are now rattled by the changes afoot. I tell Andrew that I hear plenty of chat at BBC desks and in the canteen about 'stuff farmed out to Manchester being brought back to London to cut costs.’
“I don’t agree that Salford was a cost cutting measure. It’s not done on the basis of cost – it’s done to ensure that the BBC better reflects our audience.”
I am baffled – surely money was saved? Selling off various buildings, slimming down teams…
“This was about ensuring a better range of voices. BBC breakfast, Radio 5 Live, have different guests, different academics. That’s important, people want to hear content across programmes that reflects our own lives. The BBC has to focus itself on its central mission, which is making great programmes for the public – great content and services. That’s what we are about. There are stories in the press about the BBC every single day. We cannot allow chaff to impact strategic direction.”
But how do you avoid that when people feel the BBC is public property?
“It’s not the same as not hearing feedback and taking it on board – that’s important. It's important we speak to our competitors. It’s incredibly important that we understand what our audience expect of us.”
The BBC gets a lot of criticism in the public domain for being a ‘big unwieldy, heavily unionised environment’. Is bureaucracy dragging it down?
“I think you can empower people to make decisions in a better way. That was one of the things Tony Hall was really keen on when he came back here. You empower people to make decisions rather than decision making being a process of how many people you can 'cc onto an email. If you make people accountable for their decisions it empowers them and enables them to be a bit bolder. If they are making an editorial decision they will have the backing to make those moves and not settle for something safe.”
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