After its annus horribilis the BBC is heading for disaster. Yet what’s really driving it towards the rocks is not the scandals that hit headlines and exercised politicians in 2013. That mortifying storm – historic sex crimes, IT failures, cosy pay-offs to executives, tax irregularities and
criticisms by its stars and former bosses – will blow over. The key figure is not Lord Patten but the new Director General. And Tony, the Lord Hall of Birkenhead, always understood he was inheriting a leaky ship in heavy seas. As a seasoned helmsman he knows the BBC has survived countless tempests and has always regained its composure. In fact, surprisingly you may think, it recently scored seven out of ten on measures of trust despite all the recent bungling.
He understands his biggest challenge is not about what happened in the past but what will happen in the future. Rolling waves of new technology are threatening to sink the BBC by swamping our acceptance of how we have to pay for it.
As a recent survey for the Telegraph has shown, a great majority of voters want the TV licence cut or even scrapped. Even if we discount some of this hostility as reaction to recent fiascos, the Telegraph’s findings are part of a predictable long-term trend. Broadcasting’s scarcity has gone. With dozens of free to air channels and thousands of digital radio and TV stations available through cable, satellite and phone lines, the choice is so bewildering that those of us who live in multichannel homes need built-in search engines to organise the programmes into genres as well as channels. The case for a single broadcaster to be able to tax the public is becoming ever harder for politicians to sustain.
Just as the ubiquity of television made the radio licence obsolete in 1971, so the TV licence is increasingly anachronistic. Even the box itself is becoming marginalised. Television has changed from a stand-alone centrepiece of the living room to a pervasive service available on computers, tablets and mobile phones. The very idea of broadcasting is dissolving into the internet. We have become our own scheduler, with our own channel.We can choose a show from a catalogue, start it when we want, pause it, and rewind it. We can even make videos ourselves with an inexpensive camera or a smartphone and, as the Queen did with her Christmas message, we can upload programmes to the web.
It’s much the same with radio. We can pick almost 300 stations on DAB and thousands more from the web. Or we can summon our favourite song in an instant from music-streaming sites like Spotify. In fact radio appears to make a good case for those who want to the scrap the licence fee, perhaps above all for that most hallowed (and expensive) of all 56 of the BBC’s stations, the original Home Service, Radio 4. It has a loyal, almost zealous, following of 10 million listeners each week, and most of them would pay a lot to keep it on the air, probably far more than £5 a year – which is how much of the licence fee it gets.Rupert Murdoch has proved that even low-income families are prepared to pay far more for Sky voluntarily than the Corporation demands on penalty of fine or prison.
To be fair some of the arguments against the licence fee don’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, take the complaint that it’s commercially unfair. The newspaper industry has been pressing this with some success and has caused the BBC to cut back on its once world-beating news website. But beware the press concealing its own self-interests when claiming to act for the greater good. Right from the start in the 1920s, the Newspaper Proprietors Association tried to kill the BBC. It complained it would “disseminate the cream of the news” and that broadcasting “the Boat Race, the King’s Speech and other outstanding incidents”, let alone racing, football results and the affairs of parliament, would “have a most prejudicial effect on the newspapers… and take the bread out of our mouths.” Yet newspapers had their heyday in the sixty years that followed. The decline of print is not the fault of the BBC. Nor will newspapers’ migration to the web be solved by crushing BBC Online.The Internet is a jungle and it is wholly to the good that the BBC’s websites are popular and trusted, especially if they provide a balance for those of us who gravitate to newspapers which reflect our pre-existing views.
Nor is the BBC intrinsically anticompetitive so far as programme-making is concerned. It already commissions 40 per cent of its output from outside companies and the UK independent production sector is flourishing.
Actually the development of the independent sector has had an unfortunate effect. As a public body the Corporation needs to be scrupulously fair in choosing its suppliers with the result that a once-simple commissioning process has become cumbersome and bureaucratic. Years ago I pitched ideas directly to the channel Controller. Now there are commissioning editors, assistants, committees and, above all, processes. Once, after months of haggling to get a new show on the air, I began to call it The Commission as a joke. The name stuck and the series ran for eight years without (so far as I’m aware) anyone in the BBC realising the prank. The Corporation needs a simpler, flatter structure and there may be logic in splitting it up into smaller more nimble units. But organisational complexity is a common problem in large organisations. It is not reason in itself to scrap the licence fee.
Then there is the argument that the BBC is no longer politically neutral and should therefore have its ears tweaked. But those who complain that the BBC is biased should beware of what they wish for.
They are right, of course, that there is a bias to the left. But it is not institutional, as they imagine, so much as the natural inclination of individual young, highly educated media types. There are other biases too, some much more insidious: a bias to the arts and humanities with a sometimes embarrassing deficit in scientific literacy and statistical numeracy. There is still a tendency to regard neutrality as balancing two opinions even if one is based on anecdote and politics while the other is grounded on data and research. But the greatest strength of the BBC is its independence. It acts as an umbrella for all of journalism and it must not be censored. It must be left to sort things out itself.
And for all those curmudgeons who say quality is falling it isn’t so.
If you don’t get that impression it’s because the classy output is now so widely scattered. It’s true that many shows are brasher and that more presenters shout and wave their arms as though talking to small children. As more than one wag has put it, BBC One has become CBeebies, BBC Two has become BBC One, and BBC Four has become BBC Two.
But the quality stuff is out there. I tell you from direct experience that production and editorial standards have improved substantially since I joined the industry in the 1970s and they continue to rise now that I can write dispassionately as an industry outsider.
As with quality so with quantity. Traditional audiences are scattering rather than falling away. For example, Crimewatch, whose Madeleine McCann appeal last month was billed as having its “biggest audience ever”, did brilliantly by contemporary numbers but actually achieved less than half the ratings the show routinely garnered in the 1980s and 1990s. That is a measure of the major channels’ decline. But by embracing the multichannel environment, the BBC has almost clung on to a share of viewers that it had in the terrestrial-only heyday.
According to the Corporation’s latest report, 96 per cent of us access BBC services every week on average spending more than 19 hours with Auntie, over a sixth of a typical Briton’s waking life.
So, if the audiences are robust, why not scrap the licence fee and go for advertising? The answer, once again, is that technology will soon put an end to commercial breaks as we now know them. In fact it is astonishing how long they’ve already lasted. Our innate conservatism means that mostly we stick to what we know, so that the older and less educated we are the more we are likely to watch and listen as our parents did. The extent of this inertia has confounded many, including me. It explains why the traditional channels still dominate our listening and viewing habits. And it explains why ITV’s share price is floating high – its core viewers are still sitting mutely though the adverts while younger, less Luddite, viewers like my kids snub all TV commercials by deftly spinning past them at hyperspeed. But it can’t go on much longer, as Channel 4 has found.
In any case advertising would destroy the very essence of the BBC, its USP. It would be like any other commercial network. We would lose the diversity that different forms of funding bring.
But why not share that funding out, as Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps – and even the Corporation’s last editorial director Roger Mosey – proposed earlier this month? It is an attractive proposition. It isn’t easy to defend the fact that the BBC spends most of its compulsory levy on programmes that rival broadcasters could make and sell commercially. And while it’s true that the BBC nurtures talent and is a huge benefactor to the Arts, lots of others could share the job – or take it over.
And yet there are good reasons to keep the BBC together. It may seem a behemoth measured against other British media but it is tiny on the world stage. NBC and CBS in the US each have an income three times larger, ABC six times more, and revenues from Disney’s studios and networks bring in 40 times more. Along with the Royal Family, the changing of the guards, Rolls-Royce and Scotland Yard, the BBC is one of the few institutions Britain is admired for overseas. It is scandalous that successive governments have been so penny-pinching about BBC World Services which, pound for pound, project more British influence abroad than anything comparable including our military.
One option is that the BBC should concentrate on news and factual output. Being independent of private ownership and commercial pressure it could remain a powerful voice in Britain and overseas while costing a fraction of the current licence fee. It could then consciously seek to break free of the conventional news agenda which market forces conspire to confine our national conversations. For the rest, the orchestras, the drama, the entertainment, no doubt others can do just as well. No one can reasonably complain that the quantity or quality of sports coverage has gone down in the hands of the BBC’s competitors.
And yet breaking up the BBC would be tragic – and a colossal risk. By losing its core audience the justification for a compulsory levy would be weaker still. The licence fee would not be cost-effective and the BBC would almost certainly finish up reliant on direct taxation (known as Grant in Aid) which would end its independence.
One way or another politicians – and BBC bosses – are going to have to make a difficult call. The licence fee is increasingly unpopular and can’t go on for ever. The BBC management knows this even if it dares not admit it for fear that would accelerate its demise. But don’t bet on a brave decision by anyone. The licence fee has proved remarkably resilient. Every time it has come up for renewal in the past 90 years the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. It survived commercial competition – in fact it kept on growing – and, despite the rising cadence of anti-BBC sentiment we shall hear between now and 2017, the Corporation will probably survive the next Charter revision essentially intact. Remember it was the Conservatives who first introduced a permit to fund the BBC (they thought the fledgling radio manufacturing industry deserved support and feared that advertising would drive down standards) and neither they nor Labour has ever had the stomach to kill the BBC or even badly maul it.
But a fudge in 2017 will be unpopular and will simply store up trouble. The real danger is that support for public service broadcasting will ebb away further or fall off a cliff. What Westminster should do is renew the Charter, and raise the licence fee in line with inflation, but make it clear that this is likely to be the last time. In future there may be a role for the Arts Council to subsidise public service broadcasting. But the BBC must find its own salvation. Its management will have ten clear years to manage a transition to subscription.
After that, all bets are off.
Nick Ross has worked for the BBC since the 1970s when he reported on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He presented ‘Crimewatch’ until 2007.