Just like the launch of TV-AM in 1983, the BBC has been quick out the blocks to tackle a threat to its interests, instead this time it’s the UK Government not a commercial TV station it’s taking on.
Celebrities have been dragooned into signing petitions while multi-millionaire broadcasters like Graham Norton have weighed in to discredit Culture secretary John Whittingdale’s Green Paper launched this week.
And as an example of playing the man, not the ball, hardly a mark of his football career, Gary Lineker has lambasted the R&A for having the temerity to take The Open golf broadcast rights to Sky after the BBC decided to throw its sports budget at the English Premier League. That’s the stuff they show on Match of the Day, presented by one Gary Lineker. Go figure, Gary.
But Whittingdale’s review is not before time.
Thanks to the guaranteed income from the licence fee, the BBC has enthusiastically embraced change and throughout its existence has harnessed technological innovation and led the way with ground-breaking programming. But it has also resisted competition with an aggression and tenacity which could have been learnt on the training grounds of Sandhurst.
It is not difficult to argue that innate defensiveness lay at the heart of the disgusting institutional cover-up of Jimmy Savile’s depravity.
And so as the rest of the media and news world wrestles with changing audience habits and break-neck technological change, the licence fee has not only allowed the BBC to sail serenely on while others flounder in the water, it has been able to add to its armada of services to ensure it rules not only the airwaves, but desk-tops and phone lines too.
An organisation which is not supposed to be commercial is actually the most commercially aggressive, marshalling all its resources and creativity to maintain a war of marketing attrition few can match. And it’s all, as they say about the NHS, free at the point o’ need.
For us in the newspaper world, many publishers are now reaching the point where income from copy sales and print advertising will soon be overtaken by digital advertising revenue, but it’s no secret that despite bigger audiences than ever it’s a daily battle to maintain profitability. The biggest exponent of free access, The Guardian, still runs operating losses in the region of £30m.
But thanks to the £145.50-a-year licence every TV owner must buy, and the £1,000 fine for being caught without one, the only bit about the BBC which isn’t commercial is the need to generate income.
Most people use the BBC not just because they are forced to pay but because most of its products are good. With £3,735 million guaranteed from the public, you’d expect it to be.
Not for nothing – its annual budget is £1,433 million – is BBC 1 Britain’s biggest TV station, while Radio 2 dominates the airwaves. Radio 4 is often described as the epitome of public service broadcasting and the World Service is an international treasure. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra won’t be everyone’s idea of spending public money but it’s a highly-valued contribution to cultural life.
In the week of The Referendum, BBC Scotland Online received over 13 million unique UK browsers and over 26 million worldwide. To put that in context, the UK’s biggest commercial news website Mail Online has about 14 million daily users with large numbers from the US and Australia.
Last year, despite fears more people could avoid the fee by watching TV on catch-up online, there were 25.5m fee payers and BBC licence income actually rose by £13m to £3,735m. That allowed the Beeb to employ 18,974 people, an increase of 300. It might still be gripped by PR disasters, but financially it’s in clover.
A previous attempt to ramp up the licence fee to pay for new digital services was blocked, but there is still plenty to invest in expansion, broadcast rights and big star salaries. BBC Scotland has the luxury sending sports reporter Kheredine Idessane round the world following Andy Murray to join the rest of the BBC crew.
But the pressure is to do more because the licence fee-payers’ watchdog, the BBC Trust, is there to ensure the public gets what it wants, or at least what the Trust thinks it should get.
The Trust is in effect the guardian of the status quo, because every bit of media market research tells you the public want more of what they like, but not necessarily less of what they don’t in case someone else likes it. So the Trust uses the licence fee to justify the BBC’s entry into every media market on the basis that popularity by definition compels the BBC to act.
Until now there has been no real debate about what the BBC should or should not be doing with the promise of action. So with the prospect of significant change for the first time the reaction to the Green Paper has been largely negative, predictably driven by people who benefit from a state-funded cultural monolith.
The BBC Trust is not so hot on the need to tackle a massive bureaucracy, to limit the millions spent on top management, star presenters and sports rights or to prevent six-figure pay-outs to senior staff who simply leave for other jobs.
Scottish viewers’ interests are represented by the Scottish Audience Council, almost entirely drawn from the public and voluntary sectors but led by the friendly Lanarkshire-based businessman Bill Matthews.
Their annual report out this week has attracted much attention because of its thinly-veiled attack on political coverage, in particular during the Referendum, but nowhere is there any call to re-examine the extent and effect of its services.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. For example, presuming that quality is always a cash issue, it expresses concerns that: “Radio Scotland is not sufficiently well funded to match the quality of journalism provided by Radio 4.”
It continues: “The enhanced and rejuvenated coverage of public policy issues on BBC Scotland should be maintained, reflecting the higher degree of civic intervention and voter participation and the increased role of social media as a source of information. The Council believes BBC Scotland should be properly funded for this enhanced role.”
Predictably, it’s all about what more it should be doing and little about what it shouldn’t, apart from moving away from what it describes as “conventional” news sources, whatever that means.
It is true the problems of other news organisations are not just the fault of the BBC which will be solved just by cutting Auntie off at the knees. But neither can the independent sector thrive if the BBC always has enough public money to occupy every piece of commercial high ground.
It is also true that the BBC’s TV news and current affairs in Scotland needs a new approach to address the emerging political settlement, in the way that Radio Scotland already does, but the same could be said about ITN and STV.
Politically, it’s not healthy to have so much power concentrated in one place and it’s impossible for a publicly-funded broadcaster not to become a political football. That’s precisely why the BBC’s position must be addressed and its relationship with the rest of the Scottish news world properly scrutinised
Such is its dominance that it has become easier for politicians to bring unrelenting pressure to bear, as head of news James Harding recently confessed. To an extent, some of the Scottish Audience Council’s coded language is an extension of that intimidation.
There is a place for a publicly-funded broadcaster, but it is no longer justifiable for the law to be used to maintain the BBC’s crushing command of UK media markets. It’s time for a fair fight.
A version of this article appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News. You can read it here