Those who were watching will not easily forget the chilling threat
in Christopher Bland’s voice as he reminded a Newsnight interviewer that
they both worked for the same organisation. Sometimes it’s just about
possible to believe the stories about low BBC morale still doing the
Bland, who is of course the BBC’s chairman, was appearing on the show to
argue that the Government’s statement on the corporation’s future
funding should be welcomed as a victory. Unfortunately, he was acting
like a sore loser. Perhaps understandably. The BBC had asked for at
least pounds 700 million extra a year from licence-fee payers to fund
ambitious digital expansion plans. Instead, it was given pounds 200
million and told to do some serious rethinking.
So Bland was not amused when he was ambushed on Newsnight - not only by
the presenter but also by Andrew Neil, a man who began tweaking BBC
tails as a Rupert Murdoch employee more than a decade ago. Both Neil and
the presenter were suggesting that the BBC must focus its ambitions in
the future. Bland proceeded to question Neil’s mental health.
And as for the presenter - surely he can now look forward to many years’
incarceration in one of the corporation’s notorious Gulags. Radio
Scotland, perhaps. Or religious broadcasting.
BBC culture is clearly not going to change overnight; and if Bland’s
performance is anything to go by, it will not easily be deflected from
its territorial claims on large parts of the UK broadcast economy.
Indeed, you can interpret the Government statement as a classic
Whitehall compromise - a pounds 3 across-the-board licence fee increase
doesn’t wholly quash BBC grand designs, while the commercial sector will
be relieved that there will be no tax on digital early adopters.
In his Commons speech, the culture secretary, Chris Smith, underlined
the Government’s continuing commitment to public service broadcasting
with a strong BBC at its hub. But there will be a quid pro quo. ’The
BBC,’ he stated, ’needs to raise its game. It must become even more cost
effective and quality conscious. That is why we are not going to allow
the BBC the massive injection of funds it has sought from the licence
fee ... We are setting it a number of challenges in terms of sources of
finance and in operations.’
In particular, Smith insisted that the BBC look to ’self-help’ in its
quest for the money it wants to fund ambitious expansion plans.
Self-help means cutting costs and increasing revenues from commercial
The BBC will also come under greater scrutiny, particularly as to
whether it measures up to its public service remit. Specifically, the
Government will insist that the BBC does not waste public money in
launching digital services already being supplied by the private sector.
It will start by examining the rationale behind the expensive yet
amateurish News 24 and the corporation has already been warned off
launching dedicated film or sports channels.
Rival broadcasters were unanimous in welcoming the Government’s
intention to subject the BBC to greater scrutiny. For years, they have
been arguing that the BBC should be ’put back in its box’ - in other
words, forced to return to a strictly defined public service
broadcasting ethos. Tony Ball, the chief executive of British Sky
Broadcasting, is pleased with the Government’s decision not to proceed
with a ’digital poll tax’ but he adds: ’This is still a huge pay day for
the BBC. Despite the culture secretary’s recognition that the BBC needs
to raise its game and be more cost effective, the Corporation is being
given millions more in public money.’
Michael Jackson, the chief executive of Channel 4, is not surprised that
the BBC didn’t get exactly what it wanted. ’I thought it was a generous
statement but a good one for the industry in that it provides for the
BBC’s future but also sets important guidelines. It’s a pretty sensible
equation. It is important for us to know what the BBC is going to do and
how it’s going to happen.’
Most observers in the advertising industry agree that this is, to a
large extent, a holding exercise. The Government has deferred all the
important decisions, especially on public service broadcasting
requirements and the BBC’s status as a self-governing organisation,
until the forthcoming Broadcasting and Communications White Paper.
But Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising affairs at the
advertiser trade body, ISBA, says that Smith’s statement gives
encouragement to ISBA’s fundamental argument, which is about opening the
BBC up to greater commercialisation.
He comments: ’It is the self-help side of the equation that we find so
intriguing. The BBC would have you believe that it has already generated
incredible savings through improved efficiency. So how much more is
there to be saved? Why hasn’t this huge potential for further savings
come to light before? Similarly with commercial revenues.
The received wisdom is that the BBC is already an extremely commercial
beast. So if it’s already busting a gut in this direction, how much
further should it be allowed to go? BBC1 and BBC2 may continue to be
ring-fenced in terms of advertising or sponsorship but perhaps we can
assume that Radios 1 and 2 are now in play. We will certainly continue
to press our message.’
In line with other industry bodies, the IPA welcomes some aspects of the
Government statement. But Ray Kelly, chairman of the IPA’s Media Policy
Group, says there are still grounds for concern: ’The IPA was deeply
concerned that the surcharge for a digital licence would arrest the
development of digital television in this country, so we are gratified
that the Government has decided to go for a general increase. However,
the IPA is not convinced that an increase is required. It believes that
the BBC is providing services for which there is no evidence of consumer
demand - for example, News 24. There are also other areas where the BBC
could reduce costs and where the commercial sector could better serve
the customer, most particularly in the area of radio.’