by Angela Phillips
The White Paper on the BBC was cleverly introduced to undermine its most prominent critics. None of the suggestions floated in the past few weeks: to prevent the BBC scheduling programmes against its commercial rivals, or cut back on popular programming are there in the headlines but almost every threat uttered by Whittingdale is alive and well in the small print. The future does not promise an independent BBC. If this White Paper is not seriously reviewed it promises a fearful BBC, controlled by Government appointees on its board, running scared of producing mainstream content without running foul of Ofcom’s competition rules and being bled dry by having its funding syphoned off to other, smaller competitors.
There are three key areas that should be the focus of concern for those who want to preserve a publicly funded broadcaster with the strength to compete against the giants of the private sector:
- The failure to underwrite the independence of BBC governance
- The insertion of the weasel word “distinctiveness” into the BBC mission statement and
- The opening up of all television content (with the exception of news and current affairs) to full competition from independent production companies
The Media Reform Coalition response to the Green Paper made independence from Government the keystone of BBC independence. Without this separation the BBC cannot be truly innovative and distinctive, not can it be truly impartial. The White Paper however proposes that, the Chair, vice Chair and representatives of the four UK regions, should all be appointed by the Government. While the members of the BBC Trust were indeed all public appointments, the BBC Trust did not have day-to-day oversight of BBC business. On a unitary board, these Government appointments would have a say in all future decisions.
It is hard to imagine a less reassuring prospect for future independence. Nor is it easy to see how a board that is half made up by political appointees and half by people who have an interest in and knowledge of broadcasting, can easily work in concert. The arrangement envisaged is likely to lead to total dysfunction as political appointees, with different remits, attempt to exert influence. A BBC board needs to be independently appointed, with non-executive directors who represent audiences, not Governments.
The need to ‘curb’ the growth of the BBC and concern that it was interfering with market competitiveness, was a major preoccupation of the Green Paper so we should be concerned that Ofcom, a body that is largely occupied with issues of market competitiveness, will in future be responsible for monitoring existing licences, as well as agreeing any future expansion or technical innovation. To help Ofcom in its regulatory role the document suggests:
“greater focus on quantitative metrics – the new regime should be moved towards a more clearly regulatory approach with a greater focus on measurable quantitative obligations that specify desired outputs and outcomes rather than the more qualitative approach of the existing service licences.”
In the absence of any clear definition of what it means to act in the “public interest”, it seems likely that commercial interests (which can be more easily measured) will always be prioritised and that the BBC will have to satisfy Ofcom that proposed changes or expansion doesn’t interfere with the market prospects of putative commercial rivals, irrespective of their public interest.
“Ensuring the BBC is sufficiently distinctive – discernibly different in approach, quality and content to commercial providers – is a central objective of this Charter Review. “
This is the paragraph that establishes a new concept of the BBC. One that defines it as distinct in character from the commercial sector and it is this paragraph that carries with it both the weight of the Government’s dislike of the BBC and the greatest threat to the BBC’s future. These words establish clearly the Government’s intention to try and ring-fence future BBC activity so that it cannot easily encroach on the territory of the big popular commercial broadcasters. So important do they consider it that they have added the words to the BBCs new mission statement which will now read:
“To act in the public interest, serving all audiences with impartial, high quality and distinctive media content and services that inform, educate and entertain.”
The concept of distinctiveness sounds deceptively unobjectionable to all the highly educated people who are concerned to protect the future of the BBC, which is why it will almost certainly find its way, unscathed, into the BBC’s new public purposes to which the corporation will be held accountable by Ofcom.
This is no small matter. The BBC is successful because it is universal. In order to be universal it has to be able to provide for the needs of all its licence payers, not merely for those who are keen on innovative and distinctive programming. As soon as it draws back from delivering to everyone it makes the payment of the licence fee a subsidy for an elite, which will very quickly become indefensible.
But it matters also because of the way in which media is consumed. If the Reithian values of “informing and educating” are to be fulfilled then people need to be able to stumble across material that is exciting and challenging and they do that best when content is mixed. As soon as content is separated out into strands that allow audiences only to choose only what they enjoy, the richness of the mixed diet of entertainment, education and information, is destroyed. Those who are only interested in technology will never stumble across an item about male depression. Those who are only interested in music will not know that there is an election.
There is now copious evidence to demonstrate that news knowledge is more evenly spread in populations that have access to publicly funded, regulated television. By removing all the ordinary, un-distinctive programming, that people like to view when kicking back after a hard day at work, we may well boost the fortunes of the BBC’s commercial competitors, on television and online, but we will certainly damage the public interest that the BBC is pledged to protect.
Opening Up the BBC to Competition
Only fifty per cent of BBC content is currently guaranteed to be produced by people employed by the BBC. The rest is bought from independent companies. On the plus side this makes the BBC a critical and integral part of the UK creative industry sector and that in turn protects the BBC from frontal attack by even the most ideological privatisers in the Government. However the opening up of all BBC content (apart from news and current affairs) to commercial competition will in time turn the Corporation into a commissioning organisation rather than a producing organisation.
The White Paper demands that the BBC should commission its programming in the commercial sector so that it will have to compete with other channels also bidding for content but it is also enjoined to “avoid bidding wars”. How it is going to be able to commission “distinctive material” in competition with other broadcasters without competitive bidding and while scheduling “sensitively” remains opaque. Ofcom will be watching its scheduling and keeping an eye on encroachment on commercial competitors so it will have to learn fast.
The White Paper does not explain why any of this would be useful to licence fee payers – although it would certainly be useful to commercial producers. It asserts that competition will drive up quality but there is no evidence that quality has improved since 50% of programming has been produced outside the BBC. Nor is there any reason to assume that this change would benefit new entrants or nurture independence. The independent television sector is dominated by vast conglomerates (mostly American) who steadily buy up home-grown talent as soon as it demonstrates signs of success. It is these companies that stand to benefit from the new arrangements.
For young people coming into the industry the options may have increased but competition for jobs has reduced wages and undermined job security. At the top end it has inflated salaries because the BBC has to compete for ‘talent’ against much bigger global companies with deeper pockets. These pressures will certainly increase and even if the BBC studios are set up to compete directly with the independents for work, they will undoubtedly lose much of the best talent to independent companies, who are under no obligation to post details of salaries and also provide incentives such as share deals for highly rated presenters and executives.
There should also be concern about the quality of training and the nurturing of talent. Competition and fluidity may provide avenues for new entrants but there is also something to be said for stability in which mistakes can be made and raw beginners turned into seasoned experienced practitioners. If the pool of creative workers are all external to the BBC, there will also be reduced opportunity for movement across producing and commissioning. Commissioners also need to learn their trade.
The White Paper also makes it clear that it sees the licence fee as a payment for public service content, not a funding mechanism for the BBC. This opens up the possibility of future top slicing in order to provide public service content for other broadcasters and platforms. While this may well in the future be the only way to ensure that public service content is made available to all, across all platforms, there is reason to be worried that it could simply be a way of reducing the power of the BBC by sleight of hand. A BBC with less money is a BBC with less clout in a world in which media convergence and concentration is a major and growing problem. The BBC may not be perfect but it at least belongs to the public and it is under an obligation to serve its audience not share-holders.
The Show Isn’t Over
A BBC with reduced power will be even less able to stand up to Governments intent on bringing it to heel and that, in spite of the far less confrontational style of the White Paper, is clearly its intention. But nothing is set in stone. There is still time to make changes and that is what needs to happen now.