Who not to trust 

14 December 2010 tbs.pm/1231

The BBC Trust has predictably had a rough ride since its inception, especially as it was initially created through political expediency as opposed to a natural requirement for change, therefore it was inevitably bound to get caught up in the crossfire of a seemingly never ending battle between politicians and the corporation.

It’s very easy to argue that the Trust has been too supportive of Mark Thompson in recent months, especially when Thompson was making statements concerning the best way as to how to save half a billion pounds, notably a pledge to cut costs that included “cutting the cost of licence fee collection and targeting those evading the £145.50 household levy”.

Problem is, if it costs money to specifically target those people who deliberately evade paying their £145.50, at what point does it become uneconomic to do so, and if it actually involves pestering further those people who legitimately don’t choose to have a television for whatever reason, at what point would such action(s) constitute harassment?

It’s such issues that made me feel very uneasy about these previous ‘pledges’ made by Thompson and the economic circumstances that surround them; basically speaking, unless Thompson knew something about licence fee collection and evasion that we don’t, what he previously said actually made very little sense whatsoever.

(As with the rationale previously put forward for the closure of Radio 6 Music.)

So we had Mark Thompson treating the rest of the (perhaps non-BBC) world like small children – or at least demonstrating a lack of grasp – and now there’s the outgoing BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons essentially confirming what the rest of the world actually thought in the first place, to quote:

“Let’s not be under any misapprehension, the notion that we can look for a 16% reduction in budget and sail on as you are is inconceivable so basically you can’t rule out service changes and indeed service reductions. But that shouldn’t be where you start the exercise,”

Presumably Thompson was likely to have had specific BBC service cutbacks in mind whilst delivering his previous speech, but he somehow neglected to give licence fee-payers any clue as to what he was thinking of. (Or maybe he wanted it to be an unpleasant surprise, as might be the case with someone who’s a coward.)

We’ve now easily got to the point where the avoidance of service closures or radical downsizing is simply not an option – especially with the 6 Music closure being rejected by the Trust as well – so when Thompson was glibly repeating that “doing fewer things better” mantra you would have been a fool to have accepted that excuse at face value.

Back to that attempted closure of Radio 6 Music, which turned out to be a horribly botched effort, and showed management to be hopelessly out of touch with their audience as well as betraying a lack of confidence in relation to DAB digital radio – why else would they want a principal reason to buy digital radios to be withdrawn?

Or didn’t they think that anyone would have been remotely bothered enough to care?

If management had picked, say, BBC Three instead for closure, I’d bet that there would have been relatively little resistance to such a proposal despite the channel’s higher audience figures and ‘respected’ position within the current lineup. What a broadcaster may actually think doesn’t automatically translate into the real world.

Therefore It will be very interesting to find out exactly what Mark Thompson and his BBC management colleagues will close, downsize or even (to take the really controversial route) sell off to the private sector, but it’s unlikely to be a radio station unless someone finally realises that 1Xtra might not actually be worth keeping.

Dumping something on the private sector (1Xtra? Five Live? BBC Three?) might be justified with the excuse that “it will enable such a service to continue that would otherwise have closed”, but that would be an even bigger betrayal of public service broadcasting than closing them altogether. (And the Trust might even say “No” again as well.)

Of course if BBC management really wanted to make a political point they could axe The Today Programme and the BBC Parliament channel, but those sort of sacrifices would never be contemplated by management that’s too cowardly to admit defeat in the first place.

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