In the normal course of events, being attacked by Rupert Murdoch
can only be seen as good news. Not only is it confirmation that you’re
doing something right, but it means you can now count on the support,
sympathy and friendship of what Des Lynam might refer to as ’the neutral
On the other hand, when you happen to be John Birt, the BBC
director-general, that’s not so easy to assume. For a host of reasons,
Birt isn’t the most popular man in British broadcasting; nor is the BBC
flavour of the month. Its unashamed enthusiasm for tacky National
Lottery activities recently earned it the censure of a Parliamentary
Unfortunately, Birt started it. At a TV conference held in Birmingham
last week, he made a plea for the enshrinement of universally available
public service broadcasting. A broadcast economy dominated by
subscription would, he said, create an underclass unable to afford
access to the information age.
Murdoch responded by kicking a couple of metaphorical lumps out of Birt.
He attacked the BBC’s commercialism, notably the licence fee-subsidised
news channel that will make life difficult for Sky News. He accused the
BBC of elitism and being Britain’s biggest media monopolist.
Takes one to know one, you might think. But Murdoch was, of course,
arguing that his media empire is relatively small potatoes in the broad
scale of things. He added: ’The BBC is far and away the biggest media
owner in the UK. With the combination of its pounds 2 billion annual
guaranteed income from a compulsory poll tax and vast commercial
freedom, there is absolutely no chance of it being driven out of
The advertising industry has little to choose between the two sides of
this argument as neither rely heavily on advertising revenues.
But the speeches were made at a conference on European media issues and
there were one or two Brussels bureaucrats in the audience.
Since listening to Murdoch’s speech, they’ve decided it might be time to
look at the BBC on competition grounds, starting, of course, with its
At some point, they’ll seek views from interested parties in the ad
Should Murdoch’s views receive wholehearted support?
Only if you want the BBC completely destabilised, say some, and agencies
have always found that a scary prospect. ’The ad industry view of the
BBC is almost entirely coloured by airtime inflation,’ Jerry Buhlmann,
the managing director of BBJ Media Services, points out. ’That’s down to
the fact that the BBC’s share of viewing has not been eroded at all in
recent years. That is hardly the BBC’s fault. The issue has to be
integrated into a wider consideration of the economics of the whole
broadcasting industry. Murdoch has his own motivations and all’s fair in
But it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right.’
Quite. Murdoch had to come out fighting after all the negative publicity
he’s had. Trouble is, it’s even scarier to believe that Birt is
Another way of interpreting what he was saying is that in the
subscription-TV version of the future, people will be watching less
As one agency commentator puts it: ’That would make the current
squabbles about inflation look like a tea party.’ Agencies don’t tend to
have that assumption built into their long-term projections and many
have a model of the future in which more choice leads to more viewing.
The best thing about this sort of debate is that it might distract
attention from ITV’s run-ins with advertisers. Russell Boyman, managing
partner of Mediapolis, says: ’I don’t want to seem complacent but
innovations in TV happen a lot later and have a far smaller impact than