About a month ago I was asked to contribute to an instant new book on the future of the BBC. Last week it was published by Bite-Sized Books as an eBook and £6.99 paperback, under the title Is the BBC Peril? Does it Deserve to be? Other contributors include John Simpson, Gillian Reynolds, Rob Wilson, Ray Snoddy, Richard Sambrook, Jean Seaton and many others. Here is my contribution...
Throughout the history of the BBC, governments of all shades have indulged in messy spats with the Corporation. The current ‘war’ between Boris Johnson’s government and the BBC is little different to all the others. However, the BBC’s fight is not just with the government of the day, it is with its competition. The battle for eyeballs and ears has never been more cutthroat, and if the BBC fails to acknowledge that it has no divine right to continue to exist in its current form it will inevitably sink into decades of decline and stasis.
The key thing the BBC needs to do now is to rethink what its purpose is. Is its remit still to “inform, educate and entertain” or does it need to move away from its Reithian heritage? From there it needs to get on the front foot on how it is funded. Instead of leaving it to government to dictate the terms of its financing it should immediately start to think about alternative forms of financing rather than just repeat is mantra that the licence fee is the best form of funding there is. Once upon a time that may well have been the case. In the media environment of the 2020s, it isn’t.
Viewers are used to subscribing to Sky, to Netflix, to Amazon Prime, to Disney and now to Britbox. All these media providers have to provide an offering that leads to their customers wanting to part with their money. The BBC does not. We have to pay £157.50 whether we like it or not. Let’s not beat about the bush. It’s a poll tax. And if you don’t pay it you can face a prison sentence. One in ten court cases in this country revolve around the non-payment of TV licences.
What is public service broadcasting in 2020? Surely it has to revolve around providing broadcast services that the commercial sector won’t, or can’t. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t provide entertainment programmes too, but one thing it should not be doing is competing on every level with commercial broadcasters.
In early February BBC News and Current Affairs announced a further round of cuts to their TV and radio offerings, involving 450 job losses – very few of them among BBC management, obviously. Just a few days later the BBC triumphantly announced the creation of 20 new online radio stations, most of which seemed to be specifically designed to compete with existing offerings from commercial radio. The cost of these stations will run into many millions of pounds. The contrast between the two announcements could not be clearer. It’s as if one part of the BBC doesn’t talk to another, and the senior management can’t see the wood from the trees.
The BBC is a monopoly broadcaster and often tries, by stealth, to knock the competition out of the arena. That’s what these new radio station announcements are all about. They’re doing it in the world of podcasting too, despite being very late to the podcast party. They can do it because they have the marketing ability to trounce any competitors. They did it back to Oneword Radio, a digital station devoted to the world of books and the arts, which launched in 2000. The BBC decided it couldn’t possibly tolerate that, so created BBC7 (eventually to become Radio 4 Extra) and eventually Oneword was driven out of business. They did it in the magazine world by creating all sorts of BBC branded magazines, which drove several competitors to the wall. And now they’re trying to do it in the world of music radio and podcasts.
Each year the BBC spends around £2.4 billion on its TV offerings, but a comparatively paltry £650 million on radio. BBC 1 eats up half the TV budget, while a mere £68 million is spent on the BBC News Channel, and only £10 million on BBC Parliament. In all, only around half of the BBC’s turnover of more than £5 billion is spent on programming. This proportion needs to rise. As does the proportion spent on news and current affairs.
The BBC is our gateway to the world. It has a worldwide reputation which is second to none. The BBC World Service – which is largely funded by government grant – should be nurtured, cherished and expanded. It’s all part of Britain’s soft power. If only we could say the same for its TV equivalent, BBC World. It ought to be a competitor to CNN, Al Jazeera English and the new NBC/Sky Channel which will launch later this year, but it isn’t. Given its meagre budget, it’s not surprising. Serious consideration should be given to combining it with the BBC News Channel.
At a time when interest in politics is at an all time high, what does the BBC do? It axes its most popular political TV show, This Week. It follows up this mad decision by cancelling the award-winning Victoria Derbyshire Show, without even having the politeness to inform its host. She read about it in The Times. It treats its lead and best political interviewer, Andrew Neil, with utter disdain and allows Question Time to become a bear-pit of a programme which many politicians now, understandably, refuse to appear on. It continually cuts the budget of its flagship daily current affairs show, Newsnight, to the extent where ground-breaking reporting and award-winning investigative films are relegated in importance and cheap-to-book panels take their place.
In this new 20th century media environment the BBC must recognise it can’t do everything, nor should it. Other national broadcasters don’t. Look at ARD in Germany, or NHK in Japan. NHK has four linear TV stations plus two satellite stations, and only three radio stations. As Philip Patrick wrote in The Spectator, “NHK’s presentation is low key and modest. Unlike the BBC’s shouty, self-promotion with the endlessly repeated trailers that make you feel like you are being grabbed by the lapels and screamed at, NHK’s presenters are mild-mannered and respectful and not noticeably chosen for their youth or attractiveness. They appear rather humbled by the privilege of serving the public through the national broadcaster.” Contrast this with the BBC and its incessant trailers for its programmes, again designed to smash the competition into the ground. Given the time it devotes to advertising its own programmes, it might as well be allowed to take commercial advertising. NHK doesn’t fight wars on all fronts. It concentrates, in an understated way, on some key core areas and leaves the rest to other broadcasters.
Both Radio 1 and Radio 2 could be privatised and funded by advertising. That’s more than £100 million off the running costs of the BBC at a stroke, not to mention the one-off revenue a sale of those two stations would attract.
The BBC has spent £211.5 million for a three year contract to show recorded football highlights on Match of the Day and its sister programmes. Is this really value for money given the fact that only 4 million people watch Match of the Day, and the vast majority of those probably have a Sky Sports subscription anyway. The Corporation should no longer bid for major sporting events and instead reinvest the money in covering less popular sports which the commercial channels don’t or can’t cover. The BBC’s investment in women’s football, for example, has done more to popularise the sport than anything else.
BBC local radio has been a basket case for many years, despite being funded to the tune of more than £160 million a year. It doesn’t know what its for. One year it’s told to be more like LBC and do more local phone-ins. The next year it introduces a new imaging package where the strapline for each of the 39 stations is the same: “The Sound of [area] and all the music you love”. So are they speech or music stations? Which is it? Most of them have programme schedules which are unfocussed and too diverse in content. The local seems to have been ripped out of BBC local radio. Again, they are trying too hard to compete with their commercial rivals.
I want the BBC to succeed. I want it to thrive. I am a huge admirer of much of what it does. But it is a wallowing, bureaucratic institution, held back by an institutionalised management more interested in covering their own backs than promoting innovation and giving viewers and listeners what they want. There seems to be more interest in an obsession with attracting young listeners and viewers despite an utter failure to cater for their needs in non-linear broadcasting. And this obsession leads to a total failure to cater for the overwhelmingly majority of their core, older listeners.
All this demonstrates that whoever succeeds Lord Hall as Director General and Sir David Clementi as Chairman of the BBC have the most herculean of tasks on their hands.
What is needed is a duo who can think radically, aren’t afraid to confront vested interests and are seen as transformational individuals, with a track record of reform and innovation. The last thing the BBC needs is two BBC lifers in charge.
Buy the book HERE.