Here’s some (very long) thoughts on the Government’s consultation on the future of the BBC.
To be clear I do not want to ‘save the BBC’, I want the BBC to be made very much better. I want it to be genuinely open in every way possible, I want it to be less defensive, I want the news and political coverage to be more focussed on real people and less involved in the ‘Westminster bubble’, I want BBC journalists to do more of their own research and stop following newspaper agendas, I want the BBC to challenge the status quo and be less conservative, I want more innovative and ground-breaking drama, I want the digital services to be more ‘of the web’ rather than bending the web to their will, I want more programmes made outside London and Salford, I want Radio 4 to widen its pool of contributors, I’d like the BBC Trust replaced with an elected group of Licence Fee Payers, I’d like to see the BBC run as a co-operative, I’d like John Humphreys to retire and I never, ever, want to see Robbie Savage on my TV again.
However there are very real fears that the Green Paper will fundamentally alter the BBC and that the consultation has been designed in such a way to produce answers that support the government’s preconceptions. It is designed to serve the commercial interests of the government’s cheerleaders in commercial broadcasting and commercial media groups. As the blog TradingasWDR, run by former BBC exec Bill Rogers, now a critical friend of the BBC, observed, the Green Paper contains the word ‘evidence’ twice - both in contexts that support the BBC and the word ‘concerns’ 7 times - all in ways that seek to limit the BBC’s operations. (http://tradingaswdr.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/dogmatic.html) The questions in the government consultation are technical and many of them are based a premise that is simply not supported by any evidence. The 8-strong panel set up to advise culture sector John Whittingdale is constructed entirely of critics of the BBC, several of whom have vested financial interests in seeing the BBC reduced in size and scope.
If you want to influence the future of the BBC there are three ways you can feed into the consultation:
Perhaps the easiest is the survey set up by campaigning group 38 degrees which has simplified the government’s questions and turned them into everyday language:
Then there is the BBC Trust consultation: https://consultations.external.bbc.co.uk/bbc/tomorrows-bbc
The official Government consultation: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/bbc-charter-review-public-consultation
If you want to read on, below I’ve put some links to blog posts and articles from the BBC that I’ve thought have made intelligent comments, most are impartial. I’ve set out my own thoughts, again referenced where possible, on why the BBC matters to the UK, and some thoughts about the questions and topics the government’s consultation covers.
Impact of the BBC on the UK economy:
This from the LSE:
The recent Ofcom PSB review described the BBC as the cornerstone of the UK broadcasting system. That sounds nice but it is inaccurate. The BBC is the foundation of the system, holding up standards and providing training, support and a quality threshold that supports all other media in the system. There is a scale below which such an impact would effectively cease, and the danger of this Green Paper is that it is a blueprint for undermining the foundation of one of the worlds best media systems.
According to the Government the creative economy is responsible for one in every 12 jobs in the UK, the CBI says the UK has the largest creative sector in Europe, responsible for 2 million jobs and 6% of GDP. So it follows that reducing the size and scope of the BBC will have a negative impact on an extremely important sector of the UK economy
Indeed research by Deloittes in 2011, commissioned by the BBC, found that every pound of licence fee income generates £2 in the wider economy:
George Osborne believes in ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’ (no-one else does) that means if the public sector stops spending money the private sector will step in and make up the shortfall. In TV, the Producers trade group PACT think this is nonsense and if the BBC stops commissioning programmes then the sector will be badly hit:
Parents please be aware that the BBC is the *only* UK TV channel commissioning original Children’s TV from UK companies.
The music industry is also deeply concerned about the impact of BBC cuts on their business models:
‘Last year one in seven LPs sold overseas was produced by a UK artist’.
In the 1960’s the UK had to devalue sterling against the dollar when The Beatles stopped touring because of the drop in revenue from ex-UK concerts and merchandise etc. BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 1Xtra, 6Music and the Asian network are an integral part of the UK music industry, breaking new acts and supporting existing ones.
Finally an excellent read on the effect the BBC’s move to Salford has had on the Greater Manchester Economy:
When I was at university Tyne Tees TV employed 500 skilled people and made The Tube. Now it employs 12 journalists. That’s it.
Further, it is alleged, especially by local newspaper groups, that the BBC is ‘crowding out’ private sector companies, particularly in local news. This is drivel. Enders Analysis, the most-respected independent broadcast consultancy, found no evidence at all that this is the case. The BBC has a robust set of regulations (The Fair Trading Guidelines) for ensuring that we are not responsible for negative market impact or for contravening State Aid or Competition Law. There has not been a single successful complaint under the FTGs since 2009 and that was only partly upheld on a technicality. Local newspaper groups are suffering because of the switch of classified ad revenue to eBay, Gumtree, Zoopla etc. It’s the same in the US, where, er, the BBC doesn’t have any public service revenues:
Or, shorter and funnier here: http://zelo-street.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/bbc-local-news-lies-exposed.html
(interestingly senior management renumeration at local newspaper groups doesn’t seem to have fallen in the last few years).
Another positive impact the BBC has had over its lifetime is that we invented most of the technology that broadcasting relies on, and then we enabled you to use it, for free:
Also blogged about by Nesta today, here:
I haven’t even touched on the impact of BBC news, it’s not perfect, but it strives very, very hard to be impartial. Imagine a world with BBC news replaced by Fox News…
If you think the BBC is biased you may have a point, but the evidence suggests the BBC is biased to the right, not the left:
And what of the BBC’s effect on the UK’s place in the world, even the Economist is worried about how cuts to the BBC will affect our ‘soft power’:
The Guardian has just reported that Netflix is to commission a new series of Charlie Brooker’s comedy 'Black Mirror’. This illustrates the contribution the BBC makes to our culture. It was the BBC who took the risk to commission the first series when it might have failed. Netflix only bring in private money when they are assured of a return. Not taking creative risks means a bland creative economy.
But none of this matters, as the impending 20% cut to the BBC’s budget can be made by ‘efficiency savings’ you say? all those overpaid middle-managers (like me). According to PWC the BBC is the most efficient public service organisation in the UK:
This is an excellent site if you want informed, impartial analysis of the BBC (and the editor wants the licence fee replaced by a subscription (which won’t work)) https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourbeeb
Specific points relating to the government’s questions:
q2: “Which elements of Universality are most important for the BBC?”
Universality means two things: As everyone pays for the BBC, there should be programmes that appeal to everyone - which means mass appeal programmes like Strictly and niche programmes like the slow season on Radio 4. It means that the entire population should be capable of receiving BBC programmes, even if you live in a Welsh valley or a Scottish glen. It’s a fundamental democratic principle. It’s also why your mobile phone signal cuts out when you leave London, mobile phone companies don’t have universality obligations.
q4: “Is the expansion of the BBC’s services justified in the context of increased choice for audiences? Is the BBC crowding out commercial competition and, if so, is this justified?”
As above there is no evidence at all that the BBC is 'crowding out’ commercial services. In fact the reverse is true, since the BBC began commissioning programmes from external production companies the sector has grown to be a world leader. Sky and ITV’s profits continue to rise. Sky, for instance, commissions almost no programmes from UK production companies.
q5: “Where does the evidence suggest the BBC has a positive or negative wider impact in the market?”
As above there is no evidence to show that the BBC has a negative wider impact in the market. There have been no successful complaints against the BBC under the Fair Trading Guidelines since BBC Jam a decade ago. The one partially upheld in 2009 was upheld on a technicality and the BBC has continued to work closely with the company involved. There is plenty of evidence to suggest the BBC has a positive wider impact in the market - cf the Deloittes report that £1 spent by the licence fee is worth £2 in the wider economy, the growth of the independent production sector. It could be argued that the UK’s position as the leading digital economy in Europe is because the BBC set up a world-leading website reasonably early and thus encouraged people to go online.
q11: “How should we pay for the BBC and how should the Licence Fee be modernised?”
If you were inventing the BBC now you probably wouldn’t start with a licence fee but replacing it is not easy. A subscription service would not work, it would be more expensive for the same service see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/aboutthebbc/entries/8d83c25d-f2ba-34c7-8e03-edbf806e83c0
Decriminalising Licence fee non-payment will cost the BBC £200m a year. Making the BBC responsible for free licences for over 75s has cost £700m a year. It’s right to ask who needs help more - Baby Boomers or the Millennial Generation? A German style household levy may be the right idea, but it would need to be implemented carefully to ensure the BBC’s independence from government
q12: “Should the level of funding for certain services or programmes be protected? Should some funding be made available to other providers to deliver public sector content?”
Also known as 'top-slicing’ this undermines the independence and accountability of the BBC.
q13: “Has the BBC been doing enough to deliver value for money? How could it go further?”
See PWC report above, the BBC is already the most efficient public sector organisation in the UK
q14: “How should the BBC’s commercial operations, including BBC Worldwide, be reformed?”
If BBC Worldwide were to be privatised it would mean that some money would need to be returned to shareholders rather than returned to the BBC to subsidise operations funded by the Licence Fee.