Our columnist on the corporation’s cockeyed priorities
Alan Johnston, emerging from Gaza yesterday, said that there are many other
reporters in captivity about whom we know little. It was a generous thought
from a man who knows that he might never have seen daylight again, save for
the world’s respect for the BBC. I ate my toast teary-eyed yesterday morning
as Messrs Humphrys and Bowen exuded a dignified joy on the Today
programme, and felt a swell of pride about this one man and his
quintessentially British institution.
Then I got on the Tube, opened the paper and bing – there was that other Beeb
we know equally well. “We’ll have to show more repeats, says BBC, in new
series of cuts.” Life on Mars is to be recycled, apparently, because
the public can already mouth every episode of Only Fools and Horses. The
“cuts” are, strictly speaking, cuts in ambition rather than the status quo.
But having provoked the Treasury by asking for an outrageous increase in the
licence fee, BBC bosses are now in a sulk because they have only received an
inflationary raise. No matter that at least they now have a guaranteed
income for another ten years, unlike commercial broadcasters, whose
advertising revenue has plummeted to lows not seen since the dot-com bust:
the Beeb does self-pity almost as well as it does fearless reporting.
Talk of 1,000 job cuts is wildly exaggerated. But Mark Thompson, the
Director-General of the BBC, does face real challenges. If the BBC continues
to play in every game that’s going, in fear of missing some opportunity, it
could sacrifice some of the very quality that Alan Johnston personifies.
Let’s take those repeats. Some will be shown on BBC Three and Four, the
digital channels, to help to lower their costs. But a repeat is a repeat is
a repeat, no matter what channel it’s on. If these channels require this
kind of surgery, might it not be better to put them out of their misery
BBC Three, home to Me and My Man Boobs and other treasures, barely scraped
government approval for setting it up in the first place. No one could
explain what it was for. Now it has become a box into which broadcasters
struggle to lure 16 to 34-year-olds. In a fit of delusional hyperbole that
one can only admire, the BBC Trust said on Tuesday that the channel’s
“punchiest titles may have put people off watching what was highly
informative and well-made content”. I, too, failed to watch F*** off
I’m Fat, and 34 Stone Teenager Revisited. But I wonder whether their
titles were the sole problem. Why is the BBC spending £120 million a year to
get down and dirty with E4 and ITV2, when these spend half as much to get
twice as many viewers? BBC Four has launched some good new programmes. But
it has even fewer viewers, despite the corporation’s phenomenal power to
promote its own stuff.
The BBC’s annual report, published this week, states that it is more vital
than ever to demonstrate “real public benefit”. There is hand-wringing over
the rigged phone-in competitions on Blue Peter and Saturday Kitchen, and
what may be a concerted attempt to address allegations of bias. But there is
no hint of where the boundaries of the empire might lie.
Over the past five years there has been a remorseless expansion. The BBC now
regards itself as a producer of every variety of information, entertainment
and news on every platform: TV, digital, radio, internet. Its news website
is superb. But it has repeatedly encroached on to territory occupied by
perfectly legitimate small businesses. For more than five years, it has been
pushing an online schools service. That has finally been suspended while the
EU investigates allegations that it is illegal state aid. It is time to pack
up that toy.
But the BBC can be dangerously stubborn. Some experiments were fine, when the
BBC was high on what Mark Thompson, in his previous incarnation at Channel
4, once described as a “Jacuzzi of cash”. But that time is gone. Mr Thompson
said this week that the corporation is “in many ways going to have to get
smaller”. But he also said, this year, that he would not drop any channels
or radio stations. Why not? Keeping BBC Three and Four going costs £200
million a year. On a cost-per-viewer basis, these are the two most expensive
channels after BBC Parliament. On a cost-per-hour basis, BBC Three outstrips
even BBC One. And excellent as they are, the public service value of Radio 1
and 2 must be questionable.
I have been in and out of the BBC quite a bit in the past two weeks. There is
much anxiety and gloom. A number of talented people are quietly leaving, not
because they have been pushed but because they feel quality is suffering.
There seems to be less time to research and to get things right. There are
fears that the proposed centralisation of news gathering will make news
bulletins more uniform, and reduce the discretion of individual editors. One
producer I particularly admire says that top people think that presenters are
programmes, and so ignore the danger of having more and more junior people
putting the jigsaw together.
Yes, these people are perfectionists who like to gripe. But that is why they
are so good at what they do. Yes, the BBC still has luxuries of resource
unknown to most of us in other parts of journalism. But its expertise and
cash is not wasted, in my view, when it is spent on Planet Earth or Real
Story or much of Radio 4. There is simply no reason to blow it on the
crasser items. Lord Reith’s original vision was to offer something to
everyone, something which was “better than they knew they wanted”. That is
just as valid an ambition today.
Mr Thompson should not exaggerate the cuts. But he must also protect the kind
of diligence and integrity that put Alan Johnston in a completely different
universe from, shall we say, Castaway.