Nothing Better Than Something 

1 January 2005

The BBC Green Paper largely leaves well enough alone, thank goodness, says Richard Elen. At least it doesn’t propose creating any lasting damage – unlike the Director General.

I suppose I should congratulate Tessa Jowell, and perhaps the Prime Minister, for standing up to ugly Birtian remonstrations and deciding not to ruin the BBC – after all, the present DG is doing such a good job of it himself. Indeed, one could argue that the fact that the BBC has emerged largely unscathed in the new Green Paper – if not from the swingeing job cuts that will doubtless reduce the Corporation’s ability to do what the Green Paper suggests it should be doing more of – is not only about as good as one could have hoped for, but is some kind of testament to the Corporation’s recovery from the Hutton debacle. Equally arguably, however, the present DG is not quite in the same league as the one ill-advisedly lost thereby – a point of view with which soon-to-be-missing staff may well agree.

Look a little closer at the Green Paper, and there are a couple of things that are slightly worrying. The BBC Trust that will replace the Board of Governors looks quite a lot like a revolution in the boardroom and not a fundamental shift in the structure of governance – as I don’t really have a problem with the current approach, that, to me, is not such a bad thing – and the new Trust will, at least initially, carry over a few members. I must say, membership is a job I would rather like myself.

However there is an element of Quango about the new structure, and as far as I am concerned, anything that brings the hand of Government closer to the BBC (if that is what this portends) is a Bad Thing – it’s bad enough already, having a political Sword of Damocles hanging over the Corporation every time the Charter comes up for review. But again, you could argue that the Government has had a hand in the constituents of the BBC’s governance for a very long time. Let’s hope for the best. The BBC’s independence is utterly vital and even a small risk of diminishing it is bad news.

Also worrying is the intention, long mooted, to increase the requirement for independent productions from the existing 25%, and not just from the inevitable loss of jobs we are seeing already. I am in favour of a healthy independent sector, but I think it has enough outlets already. Instead, I am actually happy with a large BBC, able to make more of its own productions and with more internal resources. Paradoxically, this potentially gives internal teams and groupings the ability to do their own thing while intrinsically embodying the Corporation’s Public Service ethos – something not available in the same way to an independent production company – and thus fostering innovation without losing the PSB thread. Significant internal freedom within an overarching public service philosophy is something that characterised Hugh Carleton-Greene’s tenure in the DG’s chair and the resulting recovery from the deep hole the Corporation had fallen into during the first three years of competition with ITV.

I am also concerned by the to-and-fro nature, over the years, of the demand by Government that the BBC partially pay its own way, or not. As far as I am concerned, the BBC should be permitted to run successful commercial operations – they enable the Corporation to do more and stretch the licence fee income further. The people who complain that the BBC is too good at it tend to be those with a commercial axe to grind, and as far as I’m concerned they should stop wingeing and learn to live with it. A commercially successful BBC is a Good Thing in my book. It remains to be seen how the Green Paper’s apparent concern about the BBC negatively impacting the commercial environment will work out on the ground.

Then there’s the question of whether the BBC should be focusing on ‘popular’ or ‘serious’ programming. Well, as I have noted before, talking of music, composer/producer Mike Batt said that there is actually no such thing as ‘popular’ and ‘serious’, just ‘popular’ and ‘unpopular’. So it is with television programming, and obviously for any channel there has to be a balance. How should the BBC justify receiving the licence fee (which itself now appears to have taken an official role as a necessary evil)? Should it do so by producing popular programming that people watch, thereby justifying itself with ratings? Or should it eschew such populism and instead focus on more Reithian offerings that the commercial channels can’t or won’t produce and thereby demonstrate that it is offering a proper Public Service? Both approaches have their critics – sometimes they’re the same people.

Now the Green Paper proposes more of the meaningful and less of the populist: I agree with it. But as with the BBC delivering commercial success following being ordered to do so in the past and then being told to stop it because it was too good at it, let’s not have complaints about BBC future programming being too highbrow, elitist, or unpopular – quality programming, whatever the ratings, is what it has been told to do. I don’t want to see remarks like “BBC Four – critically acclaimed but seldom watched”, for example – especially if they work out how to handle aspect ratios properly.

The decision should please a lot of people. Though the broadcast professional may object to the common perception that BBC programming has become ‘dumbed down’ over the (last few especially) years, that’s what people undeniably believe. (It is presumably assumed that commercial television is already about as dumb as it can get and is simply doing what’s expected of it.)

Does this mark a return to Reithian values at the BBC? I doubt it, and one (though not I) might argue that such a move would be inappropriate in the modern multichannel digital age. But how about ‘Carleton-Greenian’ values? That wouldn’t be such a bad idea, now, would it?

This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Transdiffusion MediaBlog

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