The smell of blood 

23 January 2008

‘BBC outbid rivals by £2m to keep Ross’

Like a pack of hounds closing in to kill its prey, Channel 4’s executives are banking on any perceived missteps in how the BBC has spent its licence fee money on ‘big name’ performers in helping to strengthen Channel 4’s long term public service argument. (Just don’t think of Celebrity Big Brother.)

So it comes as no surprise to learn that the amount of money the BBC had spent on securing the services of Jonathan Ross (for both TV and radio) has yet again being resurrected as something to bash the BBC’s credentials like a zombie rising from the dead in a horror movie.

Combine this with a somewhat indignant Culture, Media and Sport select committee demanding the intimate details of what the BBC spends on its top talent (ignoring any possible confidentiality clauses or commercial secrets), and you get the impression that the BBC doesn’t currently have that many friends.

I’m not saying that Jonathan Ross is worth the large amount of money that he was paid, but that there’s much more to this issue than the simplistic logic that gets trotted out by people who don’t know the full story and also probably don’t know any better.

The general suspicion just has to be that the BBC isn’t quite as adept in handling this sort of thing nowadays, and whether it’s a fault of senior management or what’s left of the BBC’s PR department – itself exposed after recent savage cutbacks – is in turn not handling the situation correctly.

All this combines to give the impression that there has either been a communications breakdown or that the general message has become lost in a frenzy of accusation. Mark Thompson and colleagues have been perhaps too busy concentrating their efforts on managing change within the corporation.

As for the so-called rumours/proposals for some form of future ‘top-slicing’ of the licence fee, bear in mind two points. Firstly, modern broadcasting is still very expensive hence it would require a large chunk of the licence fee to totally sustain a broadcaster like Channel 4 – this will restrict the potential funding options.

Secondly the earlier proposal to create an “arts council of the airwaves” – in my view a far more dangerous proposition in relation to the future of the BBC – was thrown out by ministers and Culture Secretary James Purnell plans to do nothing similar in his planned review of possible alternatives.

The “arts council” plan was thrown out partly because of the difficulty of reconciling public service funding with commercial activities; namely it’s difficult to define what constitutes something worthy of subsidy, and public money could end up being used to indirectly boost the commercial value of a broadcaster.

Both of these limitations will severely restrict what can and can’t be proposed as an ‘alternative’ to the so-called monopoly of public service broadcasting that the BBC has been accused of being (conveniently forgetting ITV and Channel 4’s public service remits that Ofcom has failed to “strengthen and maintain”).

Now is the time for BBC management to take direct responsibility for the shifting sands that are occurring outside of the corporation and to perform at least some basic form of damage limitation, even though the BBC’s enemies may actually have fewer options than they like to boast about.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Thursday 18 August 2022