The latest madcap idea dreamt up in the corridors of power to prove that the BBC is in touch with the whole country is to despatch Nick Robinson to be Today's "Friend in the North". Utter madness. Fine, have a northern correspondent, have one in the Midlands. Have one in St Ives if you want to, but to base your best interviewer in a location where he can't see the whites of his victims' eyes is ridiculous, and it demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what presenting and interviewing is all about. I guarantee it won't happen.
One beneficiary of this idea, though, could be the former 5 Live presenter Victoria Derbyshire, who could be appointed the Today programme's fifth presenter. She comes from Bolton, so the argument goes. Trouble is, her family is unlikely to welcome such a move. Her husband is a fellow West Ham season ticket holder and she has two teenage children. Why would anyone want to uproot their family like this?
Talking of Derbyshire, It was announced on Wednesday that the award winning Victoria Derbyshire Show is being axed by the BBC. Given that the BBC’s public service remit is to “inform, educate and entertain”, it’s a difficult decision to understand. It’s campaigning journalism on important social issues won the show a raft of industry awards. The decision is being made on cost grounds and the fact that it only had 250,000 viewers – hardly surprising given it was on BBC2 and the News Channel. The writing had been on the wall since it was cut from two hours to one not that long ago.
On the same day, it was also revealed that Brexitcast will broadcast its last edition next Thursday. This kind of makes sense given that we’re definitely leaving the EU the following day. The TV version will continue, though, and be rebranded rather awkwardly as ‘Newscast’. UPDATE: Contrary to what I was told before this was written, I'm told the audio podcast will continue under the new name too.
Also next Wednesday, the BBC Head of News, Fran Unsworth, will reveal her plan for the future of the whole of BBC News. Given the news and current affairs department has had to find £80 million of cuts, this could be brutal. Radio 4 is bracing itself, with The World at One reportedly a big target for the cost cutters.
Expect the headlines to be about their online offering and a proliferation of podcasts. This is yet another area where the BBC hopes to dominate its competitors – just like they tried to do in magazine publishing and radio. They delight in behaving in an anti-competitive way. Rumour is that they are about to spend millions on launching music stations to rival Hearts 80s, Absolute 90s and Smooth. The natural question which follows is this: if they continue to try to compete in areas serviced quite well by the commercial sector, how can they bleat about not having enough money to run their core public service remit stations?
And all this is happening only days after BBC Director General Tony Hall announced he would be stepping down in the summer. Some think the timing is to allow the BBC chairman Sir David Clementi to choose his successor before he too is replaced when his contract comes up next year.
His successor might pick someone more ‘risky’ and ‘uncomfortable’ for the BBC, given the successor will be chosen by Downing Street.
The BBC is facing huge challenges. Tony Hall may have had some successes in his time at the BBC, but planning for the next ten years is not one of them. He has indulged in the usual BBC bleating about the sanctity of the licence fee, without apparently realising that the broadcasting world has moved on. We’re all used to paying for our TV by subscription now.
If he had been innovative and brave, Hall would have already developed a well worked out plan which would involve asking BBC viewers and listeners to subscribe to particular channels in the same way that so many of us subscribe to Sky, Netflix or Amazon Prime. The problem he has is that the licence fee costs each household the best part of £13 per month, way above the monthly subscription for rival services, with the exception of Sky. Would the government be prepared to cover, say, one third of the BBC’s three million pound budget if it was just to cover true public service broadcasting? But even there, you uncover a big problem. BBC Radio costs around £700 million to produce.
You can’t really separate it out, and it covers a multitude of genres. There’s little doubt that Radio 1 and Radio 2 could be funded by advertising, given their popularity, but Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live and BBC Local Radio are surely what public service broadcasting is all about. In addition, there is only so much advertising or sponsorship revenue to be had. Distort the market too much and it would affect the ability of the commercial radio providers like Global, Bauer and Wireless to maintain their current level of service provision.
All eyes will now be on who the BBC board chooses to succeed Lord Hall. The Guardian published a list of the top five female candidates, as if it was to be taken as read that the successful candidate must be a woman. I couldn’t give a monkey’s arse whether Hall’s successor has a vagina or two low hanging testicles. Surely the criteria has to be that they are capable of doing the job and have the ideas to maintain the BBC as a successful broadcaster at an incredibly challenging time in its history.
The next Director General has to be a transformational one – the broadcasting equivalent of Michael Gove, someone who is willing to crack a few eggs to make an omelette. It needs to be someone who can be both inspirational for existing BBC staff, but also able to get a grip on a lumbering bureaucracy.
James Purnell, who used to be Culture Secretary under Gordon Brown, is someone who clearly has ambitions for the job of DG. And understandably so. He is head of BBC Radio, education and the man behind the less than well beloved BBC Sounds. He has some radical ideas, but one suspects he will get the job over Dominic Cummings’ twitching corpse. If he is chosen, expect the mother of all battles between the BBC and Boris Johnson’s government. It would guarantee that the appointment of the next BBC Chairman would be something well worth ordering the popcorn in for.
Andrew Neil? Sir Robbie Gibb? Michael Portillo? Oh, what larks.