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Time to start work to save the BBC

The British Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion is in my view the best broad­cast­er in the world, and today it’s under attack from com­mer­cial rivals and politi­cians (pri­mar­i­ly in the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty) backed by those same rivals (notably mem­bers of the Mur­doch fam­i­ly). The BBC, in response, is propos­ing its own cut­backs in ser­vices. It’s the thin end of the wedge.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the cur­rent Direc­tor Gen­er­al, Mark Thomp­son, who got the job in the wake of the Gilli­gan débâ­cle, and his col­leagues at the top of the Cor­po­ra­tion, have his­tor­i­cal­ly seemed to lack a back­bone as far as stand­ing up to crit­ics of the Cor­po­ra­tion is con­cerned. Instead of fight­ing back, in fact, the BBC and the BBC Trust seem to be tak­ing the view that when threat­ened, you should throw in the tow­el and do what the oppo­si­tion demands, how­ev­er con­tra­dic­to­ry, ill-advised or short-sight­ed. The like­ly result, it seems to me, is the emas­cu­la­tion of the Cor­po­ra­tion and the degrad­ing of a mag­nif­i­cent insti­tu­tion, the envy of the world.

In addi­tion, offer­ing to make cuts is the thin end of the wedge. Just as the skim­ming off of the licence fee to fund dig­i­tal switchover pro­vid­ed a prece­dent for skim­ming for oth­er pur­pos­es, so a deci­sion to make vol­un­tary (or invol­un­tary) cuts pro­vides a prece­dent for more cuts. We already know the Tories want to dis­mem­ber the BBC, and this is just start­ing their dirty work for them.

The Mur­doch fam­i­ly, con­scious that the world of news­pa­pers is chang­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly, want to try and halt the tide of change rather than going with it and see­ing what new inno­va­tions they can come up with. It’s rather like the record com­pa­nies try­ing to hold back change by mak­ing their cus­tomer the ene­my. Both will fail. How­ev­er, the Mur­dochs may cause exten­sive col­lat­er­al dam­age before they realise this, and nowhere is this of more con­cern to me than in the case of the BBC.

Thus it is that today the BBC Trust has pub­lished a Strat­e­gy Review for pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion. It rec­om­mends clos­ing BBC Radio 6 Music and the BBC Asian Net­work, reduc­ing the con­tent of the BBC Web Site — one of the most pop­u­lar in the world — by 25%, and oth­er mea­sures. You can find the actu­al review itself here. You can also read the com­men­tary of the BBC Chair­man, Michael Lyons, on the review.

We licence pay­ers have the abil­i­ty to com­ment on the pro­pos­als, and I rec­om­mend that you do so. This can be done via an online sur­vey which asks a series of ques­tions based on the proposals.

If you are con­cerned as I am about the pro­pos­als, I also urge you to sign the peti­tion at Peti­tions have swayed the BBC in the past. There is also a peti­tion at 38 Degrees.

I thought I would include here my answers to the ques­tions posed in the Online Con­sul­ta­tion ques­tion­naire. I hope you find them of inter­est. I’ve also writ­ten some addi­tion­al com­ments on the sit­u­a­tion in the Trans­d­if­fu­sion Medi­a­Blog.

BBC Strat­e­gy Review: My Response

The BBC’s strate­gic principles

Do you think these are the right principles?

The only thing I am con­cerned about is “Doing few­er things”. Why do few­er things? In par­tic­u­lar the web site is a mar­vel­lous resource and worth every pen­ny. The BBC should be doing unique things that nobody else can be both­ered to do, and the web site is one such. Radio 6 Music is another.

The BBC needs to offer qual­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty, and the web site, Radio 6 Music and the Asian Net­work deliv­er these.

Should the BBC have any oth­er strate­gic principles?

The fun­da­men­tal Rei­thi­an prin­ci­ples of “Inform, Edu­cate and Enter­tain” still work well in today’s envi­ron­ment. The BBC has a duty to deliv­er these to the pub­lic that pays for it. That means adopt­ing new tech­nolo­gies and new deliv­ery meth­ods, and giv­ing them the fund­ing they need to do the job well.

The BBC is in a lose/lose sit­u­a­tion in that if it pro­duces pop­u­lar pro­gram­ming, com­mer­cial rivals will moan that it sti­fles com­pe­ti­tion. If it pro­duces high-qual­i­ty and orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming that attracts rel­a­tive­ly few view­ers and lis­ten­ers, peo­ple will say it’s wast­ing money.

Thus the BBC needs to unequiv­o­cal­ly com­mit itself to qual­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty and make it clear that by mak­ing the pro­grammes the com­mer­cial com­peti­tors will not make, it is bound to lose view­ers and lis­ten­ers, and that this is an inevitable con­se­quence of such a strat­e­gy. Thus crit­i­cism of the size of view­ing and lis­ten­ing audi­ences must be ruled as irrel­e­vant and this must be made per­fect­ly clear.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Putting Qual­i­ty First

Which BBC out­put do you think could be high­er quality?

There are broad areas where a chan­nel or sta­tion could offer “high­er qual­i­ty”, but pri­mar­i­ly by drop­ping pro­gram­ming of a low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor nature. One could argue that gen­er­al enter­tain­ment pro­gram­ming with very expen­sive celebri­ties, for exam­ple, or real­i­ty shows (were the BBC to con­sid­er doing them in the future), can be left to the com­mer­cial sta­tions. That does­n’t mean that the out­put of the BBC in these areas is not of “high qual­i­ty”, but that the types of pro­gram­ming them­selves are not orig­i­nal or of high quality.

Offer­ing you some­thing special

Which areas should the BBC make more dis­tinc­tive from oth­er broad­cast­ers and media?

Celebri­ty chat shows and real­i­ty TV are not dis­tinc­tive. Any­one can do them.

Fac­tu­al pro­gram­ming is a par­tic­u­lar area where the BBC already is dis­tinc­tive, and this can be improved by tak­ing advan­tage of the fact, for exam­ple, that there are no com­mer­cial breaks, and thus no per­ceived need for inces­sant recaps. The audi­ence can be treat­ed as intel­li­gent and giv­en a well-paced sto­ry, with­out hav­ing to be remind­ed of past points all the time or tak­ing three steps for­ward and two back on each subtopic.

The BBC Web site and its range of ser­vices is dis­tinc­tive and unlike any oth­er offer­ing, with its broad spec­trum of news, com­ment, infor­ma­tion and blogs. This needs to be devel­oped fur­ther and take full advan­tage of new technology.

Sta­tions like Radio 6 music, Radio 3 and Radio 4 offer dis­tinc­tive pro­gram­ming and music that can­not be heard else­where. Radio 3 is noth­ing like Clas­sic FM, for exam­ple. There should be more spe­cial­ist pro­gram­ming not less.

In gen­er­al, the BBC is not being dis­tinc­tive when it pro­duces pro­gram­ming sim­i­lar to that found on com­mer­cial sta­tions and chan­nels. The BBC’s strengths include fac­tu­al and doc­u­men­tary pro­gram­ming, high qual­i­ty mod­ern and peri­od dra­ma, link­ing into new tech­nol­o­gy such as the web site and iPlay­er, and music radio that escapes from the mainstream.

The Five Edi­to­r­i­al Priorities

Do these pri­or­i­ties fit with your expec­ta­tions of BBC TV, radio and online services? 

Yes, they do.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Doing few­er things and doing them better

We wel­come your views on these areas.

Clos­ing Radio 6 Music and the Asian Net­work are in direct con­flict with the goal of “Offer­ing some­thing spe­cial”. While one might argue that ulti­mate­ly there should be no need for an “Asian Net­work” as a sep­a­rate enti­ty, we are not there yet.

How­ev­er in par­tic­u­lar when con­sid­er­ing Radio 6 Music, this kind of ser­vice — a ser­vice that a com­mer­cial broad­cast­er would not con­sid­er offer­ing — is exact­ly the kind of thing the BBC should be doing and clos­ing it runs con­trary to pre­vi­ous­ly-stat­ed criteria.

In addi­tion, radio is cheap — you could close BBC 3 and save a dozen spe­cial­ist radio stations.

The BBC Web site is also fine as it is. I enjoy the breadth and depth of cov­er­age, which is unmatched by oth­er oper­a­tors, not because the com­pe­ti­tion is sti­fled but because the com­pe­ti­tion sim­ply can­not be both­ered to do it this well.

I do not regard lim­it­ing the scope of the BBC web site as being in line with prin­ci­ples of excel­lence, orig­i­nal­i­ty or pub­lic ser­vice. We pay for the BBC and we have a right to the best pos­si­ble ser­vice from it.

Arguably, nobody could do a web site bet­ter — it is one of the most pop­u­lar in the entire world. Restrict­ing its scope comes across as a knee-jerk response to crit­i­cism and not in line with stat­ed strate­gic goals.

I would like to see BBC local radio remain local­ly gen­er­at­ed as far as pos­si­ble. There are plen­ty of peo­ple who would vol­un­teer to pro­duce and present local­ly-based pro­gram­ming out­side dri­ve time giv­en access to BBC resources, for example.

I do not have par­tic­u­lar views on oth­er areas men­tioned in this section.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Guar­an­tee­ing access to BBC services

If you have par­tic­u­lar views on how you expect BBC ser­vices to be avail­able to you, please let us know.

I do not have any par­tic­u­lar views on this sec­tion at present.

The BBC archive

Please tell us if you have views on this area.

The BBC is the great­est broad­cast­er in the world and it has a his­to­ry of pro­gram­ming stretch­ing back to the 1920s. In the past dread­ful sac­ri­fices have been made in the name of cost-effec­tive­ness that have result­ed in price­less cov­er­age of inter­na­tion­al events, unique dra­ma and oth­er pro­gram­ming being irre­triev­ably lost. Much of BBC cov­er­age of the Apol­lo XI mis­sion was taped over for example.

Main­tain­ing a com­pre­hen­sive BBC Archive is vital going for­ward and the mis­takes of the past, result­ing in irre­triev­able loss of our cul­tur­al her­itage, must not be repeat­ed in the future. We need to save the unique pro­gram­ming and out­put for our­selves and for future generations.

In addi­tion to being archived, pro­gram­ming should be avail­able to the pub­lic online and/or via viewing/listening envi­ron­ments like those offered by the BFI.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Mak­ing the licence fee work harder

If you are con­cerned about the BBC’s val­ue for mon­ey, please tell us why.

I have no spe­cif­ic views on this beyond sug­gest­ing that as far as salaries, expens­es and sim­i­lar areas of expen­di­ture are con­cerned, I expect the Cor­po­ra­tion always to be aware of cost and to nego­ti­ate the best pos­si­ble deal. I expect con­tracts and expens­es, for exam­ple, to be at lev­els gen­er­al­ly regard­ed as stan­dard in the industry.

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Set­ting new bound­aries for the BBC

Do you think that the BBC should lim­it its activ­i­ties in these areas?


Just because your com­mer­cial com­peti­tors say you should or should­n’t be doing some­thing does­n’t mean that you should lis­ten to them or that they are talk­ing sense.

Clos­ing 6 Music reduces the out­put of unique orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming and runs counter to oth­er strate­gic goals. It also saves only a tiny bit of mon­ey in real terms.

Reduc­ing pur­chas­es of over­seas dra­mas is not a valid deci­sion if you are intent on offer­ing audi­ences the best. There are some areas of dra­ma where no UK pro­duc­tion can match the qual­i­ty of pro­gram­ming made over­seas, notably in the USA. Deny­ing BBC view­ers high qual­i­ty con­tent sim­ply because it was­n’t made here is absurd.

Equal­ly, there are areas where the BBC is sec­ond to none, and I am sure the Cor­po­ra­tion does its best to sell these shows over­seas and thus facil­i­tate addi­tion­al ser­vices with­out requir­ing an increase in the licence fee.

Reduc­ing the scope of the BBC web­site makes no sense at all in terms of qual­i­ty of ser­vice cri­te­ria. The web site as it stands offers a unique ser­vice that is unpar­al­leled, not because com­pe­ti­tion is sti­fled but because nobody can be both­ered to try. It is a unique ser­vice, just like, say, the Guardian’s online offer­ings. In dif­fer­ent ways, I am hap­py to pay for both.

The BBC sets the stan­dards here and in many oth­er areas. Because the BBC had an orig­i­nal, bril­liant idea does­n’t mean to say that they have to give it up because the com­mer­cial boys did­n’t think of it them­selves or see how they could make mon­ey from it.

I see no rea­son why the BBC should restrict or reduce its local offer­ings. Nobody else is going to do it, what­ev­er they say. There is lit­tle or no mon­ey to be made there but there is a ser­vice that can be pro­vid­ed. Pub­lic ser­vice is part of the BBC’s remit. I do not have views on oth­er pro­pos­als in this section.

Should any oth­er areas be on this list?

I would seri­ous­ly con­sid­er whether BBC 3 meets cri­te­ria for qual­i­ty and orig­i­nal­i­ty. The few orig­i­nal pro­grammes would be entire­ly appro­pri­ate on BBC 2 or per­haps BBC 4 for example.

My fun­da­men­tal view is that there are no areas of ser­vice that the BBC pro­vides that I am not hap­py to pay for. How­ev­er if you are intent on mak­ing cuts, then clos­ing BBC3 would save quite a num­ber of radio stations.


1 Jack { 03.10.10 at 18:14 }

This BBC-o-gram helps to visu­alise the BBC bud­get, and graph­i­cal­ly shows how minis­cule the 6 music bud­get is.

2 Jack { 03.13.10 at 23:00 }

The Archive, 6 Music and the web­site have a nexus in the John Peel ses­sions. The John Peel ses­sions were part of my musi­cal her­itage, and I think they are part of the ethos of 6 Music. Orig­i­nal­ly brod­cast for free, they now stand out as a mighty cul­tur­al trea­sure. But all that is avail­able are 30sec clips OR maybe get 6 Music’s Marc Riley to play a session.
The web­page show­cas­ing the ses­sions ( has a ban­ner inform­ing us that the page has­n’t been updat­ed since 2005, and it has been kept for ref­er­ence. The impli­ca­tion being that as soon as some exec decides that the rel­e­vance has gone, so will the page. Orig­i­nal­i­ty is being dis­missed in favour of mass appeal. Who is going to be able to stum­ble upon the likes of Ivor Cut­ler in this bland future? I despair.

3 Ivana { 03.14.10 at 00:54 }

Pro­posed prin­ci­ple: Guar­an­tee­ing access to BBC services

If you have par­tic­u­lar views on how you expect BBC ser­vices to be avail­able to you, please let us know.

You say- I do not have any par­tic­u­lar views on this sec­tion at present.

But what about Iplay­er only giv­ing 7 days to see/hear a show. Imag­ine I hear a NEW show, One I nev­er found before, It is great and want to lis­ten to an ear­li­er prog I prob­a­bly can’t because it is a week­ly show. Iplay­er is 7 days, why not longer? 3 weeks?

4 Richard Elen { 03.14.10 at 10:45 }

Ivana has a fair point. It would be inter­est­ing to know why the lim­it is only sev­en days. Obvi­ous­ly sev­en days is a lot of data stor­age, espe­cial­ly in HD. But stor­age is inex­pen­sive these days. And I would hope that rights nego­ti­a­tions include an indef­i­nite peri­od and not one lim­it­ed to a week.

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