The BBC is under threat like never before. That seems to be the consensus about the two events of past weeks:
- a budget raid by the Chancellor that saddled the BBC with absorbing the £630 million cost of free TV licences for the over-75s,
- a seemingly hostile charter review process, kicked off with a Green Paper and the appointment of an advisory group by the new culture minister John Whittingdale.
Charlotte Higgins’ excellent Guardian ‘long read’ article has outlined most of the background to these events, including the startling revelation that the funding negotiation was a real last minute affair, with the BBC able to least to wring two concessions out of George Osborne:
- a reduction in the BBC’s financial involvement in the rollout of highspeed broadband (but NB this is a blow to the project of a BBC-led Digital Public Space)
- a commitment that the licence fee should rise with inflation, which is has not done for a decade (assuming, that is, that there continues to be a licence fee).
The Green Paper, according to the BBC’s strategy chief James Purnell, is ‘depressing’ because its emphasis seems to be on reducing the size of the BBC, despite paying lip service to its cultural importance, both nationally and globally. It frequently mentions the waste of £100 million on the failed Digital Media Initiative (this from a government that lost £10 billion on the failed NHS computerisation, the biggest IT failure in the world). It may of course be that Whittingdale is playing a sophisticated game by getting all the nasty stuff out in the open long before any decisions get taken. Let’s hope so, and let’s hope that the BBC’s brand is enhanced and not damaged by the process.
The early signs from the pro-BBC camp are not particularly encouraging on this score. Whittingdale has set up an advisory group ‘to guide the minister’, which will meet six times a year and ensure that the consultation on the Green Paper is as open and innovative as possible. But its membership has been widely criticised as anti-BBC as many members have said critical things about the BBC in the past. See for instance Stewart Lee in the Observer or the Guardian’s editorial.
Who hasn’t been critical of the BBC at some point? Most of the group have a clear appreciation of the role of the BBC in British broadcasting culture. I’d trust Stewart Purvis in a fight over Public Service Broadcasting any day, and it is plain stupid to tar Alice Mahon with the Murdoch brush simply because she worked for Elizabeth ‘the one that got away from daddy’ Murdoch’s Shine group… making public service content for the BBC, mostly. This is typical of the instant polarisation that happens in any debate about the BBC, which unfortunately springs from the corporation’s own approach. One of the problems with any discussion of the BBC is the attitude that ‘outsiders’ (i.e. anyone who doesn’t work there) have to be totally uncritical of the organisation or are deemed to be against it. This unhelpful attitude is one I’ve met from humble BBC journalists and BBC Trust members alike. It may be the one thing that leads to the destruction of the BBC: as an organisation, it seems to lack the ability to deal with its ‘critical friends’.
In fact, there are plenty on the advisory panel, a group constructed of former and current broadcasting insiders who are authoritative on the issues that the BBC faces… or rather the Green Paper’s allegations which are:
- BBC distorts the market in news, internet, radio and TV
- BBC should no longer have the central aim of being a universal provider in broadcasting
- BBC should become a market-failure guarantor, providing only that which commercial interests cannot provide
- BBC should no longer be a self-regulating organisation but should be regulated by Ofcom
- BBC should not be funded by a ‘regressive tax’ (Whittingdale) like the licence fee
These are questions that need to be asked, as James Purnell acknowledged on Newsnight. They will strengthen the BBC because the answers, except to the last one, are more obvious than not. Those in power would soon find this out if they bothered to ask the public, which the BBC Trust intends to do before it, in all probability, disappears.
Here are my answers:
- Of course the BBC distorts the market in the UK, but not in bad way. Its market strength has decisively skewed UK broadcasting production and editorial values towards those of public service and news neutrality. The existence of the BBC as a big customer for independents and a big producer in its own right are key to the huge success of UK broadcasting in the world market. The UK has something distinctive to sell: public service values, even in the most apparently commercial of formats. That’s why the vast majority of UK independents and media workers are queuing up to support the BBC… join them on Broadcast magazine’s campaign for the BBC.
It is also why the press lines up to castigate the BBC. The BBC acts as a necessary restraint on other news providers. Why is Sky News not like Fox News? Because it has to compete with BBC news, and you can’t do that with a ragbag of prejudices and non-stories. The BBC only looks ‘too big’ if you take the distorting view of the print press. That’s why The Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover on Newsnight can say that “compared to the BBC, Rupert Murdoch is a minnow”, a claim so bizarre that no-one picked it up. There is just one area where the Murdoch empire is a minnow compared with the BBC, and that is in UK originated TV content. After 20 years in the UK market, Sky is just getting round to commissioning locally, producing in a year the same amount that the BBC does in an average week. So in short, a strong BBC ensures that the UK has a strong and distinctive broadcasting production culture.
- A universal provider, free at the point of viewing, remains a cultural necessity, all the more so in a fragmenting market where finding the content you want has become a struggle as Liz Evans’ (underfunded) work on understanding the multiscreen household has revealed. Easy- to-find content across all genres has to be provided to combat social marginalisation of households where a Sky subscription will no longer be an option in the universe defined by Iain Duncan Smith. In addition, the proper functioning of a broadcast market needs a core with and against which all the fragments can measure themselves. It also needs, for the reasons stated above, a universal provider committed to ensuring that the public service values of inclusion and basic humanity are firmly installed in popular content like talent shows, cookery competitions and reality TV. Otherwise we will end up on Planet Berlusconi.
- The Market Failure Guarantor argument defies the crazy logic of content production on two levels. First, no-one knows what will be a success and what will not: Great British Bakeoff is the latest of a long line of examples that even include the original Top Gear. Second, as Channel 4 occasionally discovers, when an ‘alternative’ or ‘market failure’ organisation has a big hit, then it is under pressure to give it up to the very commercial sector which had failed to spot its potential in the first place. Being a market failure organisation in other words, is not even a misplaced piece of high-mindedness; it is a fail/fail option.
The BBC already plays some market failure roles, however. The first is the provision of a Welsh language TV service, S4C, and programmes for children, particularly the youngest age groups. The second is World Service news, where the market failure is global not local. It means that the BBC is an important and distinctive news brand around the world, known for values that are the polar opposite of those that UK right-wing fantasists think that the BBC espouses. Diminish the BBC and you diminish this increasingly important aspect of UK soft power in the world. Compensation for market failures is part of the BBC’s role, but cannot define its role. Indeed, its current market failure functions depends on the strength of its position at the heart of the UK broadcasting culture.
- The BBC should be regulated by Ofcom. The BBC’s self-regulation model comes from the era when there was no alternative to direct state regulation. Nowadays, regulatory bodies perform the function of quasi-independence from political control with increasing confidence. The political map has changed, and the shabby stitch-up about the future of BBC funding would probably have been less easy for George Osbourne had Ofcom been involved.
- The licence fee remains the most effective way of providing funding for a public service broadcaster, especially now that a mechanism for including i-Player usage will have to be found. But, as Peter Preston telegraphed in the Observer, the backroom deal forced on both the BBC and John Whittingdale has effectively pre-empted much of the argument about BBC funding.
What does this all boil down to?
The charter review process has to make a clear distinction between the provision of content and the production of services.
Much BBC content is already provided through the market. BBC commissioning from independents is key to the success of the UK production sector, and will continue to be so. Here the BBC exercises a cultural and not a market power.
The provision of services includes TV and radio channels, news websites, core technologies. Here the BBC has a market power. The question is not whether it should have that power or not, but how it uses it. If the BBC uses its market power to ensure that the market runs in a way that is effective, distinctive and of benefit to UK consumers, then let it continue to do so.
JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He leads the ADAPT project on the history of technologies in TV, funded by a €1.6 million grant from the European Research Council. He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and also oversees the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen. His publications can be found HERE.