Getting the BBC out of the way 

24 February 2004

“Far-reaching change is needed to enable the BBC to achieve its full potential,” begins the press release announcing the publication of “Beyond The Charter”, a report on the BBC by the Broadcasting Policy Group, a group assembled by the Conservative Party and consisting of five television experts headed by former Sky head of programming David Elstein. “Far-reaching change”, in the view of the Group, would essentially dismantle the BBC and sell off the bits – hardly surprising, as at least one of the members of the group, Geoff Metzger, MD of The History Channel, has been miffed by the BBC’s ability to go head-to-head with them: in Metzger’s case by the launch of UK History – and all the members have recent history in commercial television.

As one might expect given its Conservative Party inspired origins, the Group does not like the fact that the BBC does so well, criticising its success in the ratings. Rather than address the difficult balance between the BBC’s need to justify its existence by producing popular programming with the need to justify its existence by producing quality ‘public service’ programming that the commercial companies don’t touch, the Group simply weighs in with plans to stop the BBC from competing “unfairly” with commercial rivals. If BBC TV Production was spun off, they say, “most of the current objections to the BBC’s behaviour from competitors would fall away.” Whether these objections are in any way valid is hardly considered, of course. The BBC as it is stands in the way of commercial companies who can’t beat it – so take it apart. Well, it’s certainly a simple solution. A bit too simple if you ask me.

“The BBC must be freed up to take advantage of the new commercial opportunities which will increasingly present themselves,” says Elstein. Where “freed up” really means “broken up”, and the new commercial opportunities are those to be enjoyed by commercial programme producers no longer outclassed by the Corporation.

The Group has spent some time considering the BBC’s funding. Curiously, they regard the licence fee as a means of Government control of the BBC, not, as originally intended, as a way of freeing the Corporation from it. They rightly point out that at Charter Review time, the government of the day can exact revenge on an irritating BBC by reducing or freezing the licence fee.

But while the world at large has had difficulty coming up with a better idea, the Group handles maintaining BBC independence by phasing the BBC as we know it out – along with the licence fee, giving the money to the Exchequer in the interim and setting up a “Public Broadcasting Authority” which would fund public service content of TV, radio, the Internet and even mobile phones, and would distribute funding – provided somewhat non-independently by the Treasury – not only to the BBC but to other bodies, which would compete for funding. This, they say, would remove the government’s ability to punish the BBC by curbing its funding – presumably because it would already have been shattered into a thousand pieces. But that’s OK: after 2007 the BBC’s TV programme production would have been “hived off”, “to open up the full extent of the BBC schedules to competitive supply”. By the end of analogue TV, all BBC Broadcast services would have been moved to commercial funding.

BBC Distribution would have gone too, to remove “any remaining tendency to distort terms of trade”. Hmph: why not let it compete? At present, programme sales of various kinds provide significant additional income. In the States, PBS is allowed to help its precarious funding by selling videos. Would this be out too? And while the remaining ‘BBC Broadcast’ should, they suggest, perhaps be privatised, “Channel 4 should remain in public ownership… able to apply to the PBA for additional funding.” Hmmm. Any Channel 4 content providers in the Group? Well yes, of course.

The question of whether the government would be able to lean on the Government-funded PBA or ‘encourage’ it to award funding to compliant broadcasters is not addressed. And the phasing-out of the licence fee is justified largely as a means of encouraging the uptake of DTT – something that seems to be happening quite happily on its own, as we are often reminded by those providing it.

The hiving off of the BBC’s television production capability is justified as benefiting not only the “creative community as a whole”, but even the BBC – who, the Group suggests, has a “market dominance [that] inevitably brings with it the temptation of abuse, which is not always resisted.” Abuse that’s not always demonstrated, either. So the Corporation must be cut down to size, a size that won’t provide too much competition for the rest of the “creative community”. After the close of analogue TV, BBC television is also separated from the rest of the Corporation (which now essentially seems to be left with radio only, PBA-funded) and funded by subscription: it would “operate primarily as a pay-TV business” which could (and might have to) include advertising, as from 2007, BBC digital services would cease to receive public funding. At the same time, ITV and five would be released from all positive content obligations.

And what of governance? Well, the BBC – or what would be left of its bones – is given a makeover and reconstituted Channel 4 style, while retaining the name “BBC”. Owned by Ofcom; regulated by PBA disbursement, Ofcom’s regulatory procedures and “the consumer sovereignty implicit in subscription funding”. So it (whatever “it” means at this point) could make – er, sorry, ‘buy’ – popular programming – it would have to, to retain sufficient subscription income.

So, why do all this? Why mess with the BBC? Well, in the case of the Broadcasting Policy Group, the intention seems to be to take the BBC out of the mainstream commercial television equation – where it hampers friends and co-workers by simply being too good at the whole business – by chopping it up into little bits. The public service bits have to compete for funding with other companies, while the hived-off mainstream production and distribution bits become just like other parts of the commercial television industry, no longer in a position to show up the latter, because they would be a part of it. Underlying the report seems to be a feeling that the BBC as it is just does too well, is too important, and sets too many standards that the rest of the UK television industry can’t attain. So it has to go.

You and I might feel that we’re glad that somebody is maintaining standards, even if they apparently make mistakes and are a little sloppy from time to time. But if your starting point is commercial television, that’s not the point. The Group contends that a single large-scale public service broadcaster is not necessary, and points to ITV companies “before… franchises were auctioned to the highest bidder” as developing a “successful public service culture… in spite of their relatively small size and supposedly commercial ethic”: not a bad point, were it not spoiled by proposing that the BBC “compete” for PBA funding, which sounds a bit too much like just another auction to the highest bidder.

This report might be expected from a group with this mandate, from these origins and with these members. There is obviously a lot more to it than is glossed over in this article and I would recommend that readers study the 73-page report.

Will the Conservative Party adopt it as policy? They’re not obligated to, and it might be prudent, for the moment at least, not to advocate closing down the BBC.

This article previously appeared on the MediaBlog

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