At Friday’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC, devoted some time to various bees that he has in his bonnet. In fact, his speech was heavily trailed in a piece he wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday about, variously, the licence fee, BBC independence, competition from Sky and re-transmission fees.
However, it’s difficult to know whether he is deliberately avoiding the main problem with the BBC or is so immersed in the BBC groupthink that he cannot see it.
Everything at the Beeb is rosy, apparently. Or maybe not.
As you will tell if you read the whole thing, he covers a lot of ground, so let me boil it down thus:
- The BBC is independent and people love it
- Sky is rather good at what they do (except they don’t buy enough British programmes)
- Sky should pay money to the BBC
On broadcasters’ independence:
“A staunch history of editorial independence from political and commercial influence has been as fiercely defended by the commercially funded public-sector broadcasters as by the BBC – think of Thames and Death on the Rock – and it is what makes possible the impartiality in and beyond the news which British audiences prize.”
I know, “commercially funded public-sector” is something of an oxymoron.
However, Mark is displaying a somewhat simplistic view of “independence”. While the BBC is funded so heavily via the State – or, more specifically, with the assistance of the State via the licence fee, it cannot be independent of the State. Now I’m not talking about the government necessarily – the BBC will point out many examples of the corporation being difficult to the government of the day – I’m referring to an institutional bias. As their own Andrew Marr put it:
The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias. (Daily Mail 21/10/06)
This is a bias that instinctively favours state regulation, moral relativism, a suspicion of the Right that is belied in the tone and language of its coverage and in areas of its broadcasting (particularly beyond the heavily scritinised news and current affairs output).
On the BBC’s critics, Mark doesn’t quite descend into a rant about right wing conspiracies, but there is an underlying theme when he refers to “political and commercial influence”. When he draws parallels with other countries, he singles out Italy and France (who happen to have right-wing governments).
The same commercial and political forces which are undermining the independence of the public broadcasters in other European countries – Italy and France spring to mind – are at work here as well. In the UK, they know that a frontal assault will fail so they adopt different tactics – exaggerated claims about waste and inefficiency; nitpicking about the detailed mechanisms of governance and accountability.
You can get an idea of the intellectual weight of some of the attacks from the freedom of information requests we get in…. questions like these: How many toilets do you have in Television Centre and how many accidents take place in them each year? What’s your policy on biscuits?
Actually, on the trivial FoI requests I can see his point – even in local government we have similar enquiries. I can also see an argument that attacks on how the BBC is run (including the pay of top stars) should be of less relevance, but only when compared to the real fundamental concern about how the BBC is funded. That, I suspect, is the frontal assault that he might be hinting at and rather than address it, he focuses on the easy targets of lightweight critics.
The thing is, the critics probably wouldn’t care as much about BBC waste if we weren’t forced to pay for it. Like any other part of the public sector, the trivial stuff matters to many people because it can be indicative of deeper rooted inefficiency and waste.
Although, according to Mark, we don’t really care about all this:
Sometimes this relentless negativity affects the political debate about broadcasting. But perhaps surprisingly there’s no evidence that any of this is having any affect on public attitudes to the BBC. And that’s true even of the readers of those papers which are most hostile to the BBC. Across the UK population, 71% of people say they’re glad the BBC exists. Among readers of the Daily Mail, it’s 74%. The Telegraph, 82%. The Times, 83%. The Sunday Times, 85%.
There is, of course, a big difference between being “glad the BBC exists” and being happy with how it is run or funded. I might be glad that we have roads to get about on, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy at the amount of tax I have to pay, or the way those taxes are levied, to pay for those roads.
And it’s no different with the licence fee – one poll result that Mark conveniently missed was the one for the Guardian last year (pdf 107kb) that reported 57% of people preferring funding methods for the BBC other than a TV licence fee.
Then Mark rounds on the BBC’s bogey man – Rupert Murdoch. Here, I’m afraid, his arguments take some bizarre turns. First, he says something I agree with:
Sky has reached its pre-eminence as Britain’s biggest broadcaster for the best of reasons. Technological innovation, a willingness to take big risks, strategic flexibility, an ability to get close to and understand customers. Sky is not the enemy of quality British television – it’s an important provider of it.
The BBC praising Sky? Sounds too good to be true. Sure enough:
But when it comes to investing in original British production, it’s a different picture….it’s time Sky pulled its weight by investing much, much more in British talent and British content….As a proportion of Sky’s own turnover and its profits, its investment in original British content is just not enough.
Look back at what he just said about Sky, that it had reached it pre-eminence by, among other things, “an ability to get close to and understand customers”. That’s the people who pay (voluntarily) to receive their content. If British talent is that good, they will invest in it. Just as the more successful BBC programmes get purchased by foreign networks, presumably choosing them over their own domestic talent. If the BBC wants to have “buying British” as a unique selling point, then fine, but you can’t choose to bowl underarm and then complain because the opposing batsmen knock you all over the ground.
Yet Sky doesn’t just have the ability to get close to its customers … it needs to, because it cannot extort its subscriptions from people. If it ignores them, they can walk away and take their money with them … unlike another broadcaster not a million miles from the subject of this post.
Finally, having moaned at Sky because they are good at what they do, he comes up with a super wheeze to tap into that success and, again, misses the point bigtime:
“In Britain Sky pays nothing for re-transmitting the public sector broadcasting channels, despite the fact that, taken together, they are by far the most watched channels they offer….The man who made that case [that the distributors should pay the networks a charge in return for the right to carry them ] is Rupert Murdoch and in America he’s winning the argument: Fox is now receiving distribution fees from the cable companies. So why not introduce re-transmission fees in this country as well? My modest proposal is that we accept those arguments and explore the adoption of retransmission fees.
The big difference, Mark, is that the BBC is already being paid for the BBC content that viewers are watching on Sky, or the cable channels. You see, if they didn’t, they get nasty letters and visits from the TV Licensing people. There is no parallel between the UK and US in this respect, so whatever Rupert Murdoch has said in New York is irrelevant.
Despite the complacency of the earlier part of the article – that everyone loves the BBC and the government isn’t going to hurt them – we are left with the impression that this is a very nervous BBC; and so it should be, as long as it keeps telling itself that the problem is just lightweight critics and that the public are happy with the status quo, rather than the elephant in the room: the inequity of very principle of the licence fee. And that’s the point Marc keeps missing, either by design or ignorance.
That approach is not in the interest of British talent, diversity of content or many other of the ideals – including impartiality – that the BBC holds dear (even if it doesn’t achieve them as well as it thinks it does).