Will the BBC get blown away by the gathering storm?
New culture secretary John Whittingdale is very serious about making radical cuts. And now that his party is in sole charge at Westminster he has both the time and the mandate to carry them through.
So why is he so determined?
Whittingdale was chair of the Culture Committee for most of the past decade. This is not a minister who is taking up a brief he knows nothing about. He is an expert in the field and is likely to be formidable and relentless.
Politically he is on the right of the Conservatives: he quite literally was Margaret Thatcher’s bag carrier when she was PM, a position he often jokes about. The BBC may well be very popular amongst the public, and regarded as a great national institution, but to free market ideologues it does not fit with the way they believe a capitalist economy should be run. Whittingdale is also a self-confessed admirer of Rupert Murdoch .
His appointment comes against a background of complaints by many Conservatives that the BBC has a “liberal” bias which shows through both in news and other programming (a recent alleged example is the BBC’s broadcast of Songs of Praise from a refugee camp in Calais.)
We will first deal with the allegations of bias before going on to analyse the areas that the review panel set up by Whittingdale will be examining and what may emerge.
The last General Election was especially bruising election for the BBC, not just because of the debacle of the leadership debates but also because of its proximity to the renewal of the Corporation’s royal charter next year. Inevitable and dire threats - most implied, some explicit - were made to journalists and management as politicians from all parties tried to manipulate coverage to suit their own ends. James Harding, the BBC’s news chief described the period as being “hell on wheels.”
Alleged bias is one reason given by Whittingdale for his desire to replace the BBC Trust, which currently governs the BBC, with an outside regulator, perhaps Ofcom which regulates its commercial rivals.
But is the BBC biased? Thankfully that does not have to be a matter of opinion, it’s one of fact thanks to a piece of research conducted in 2013 for the BBC Trust. Author Mike Berry summarises the findings here
He concludes: “The BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda.”
There may well be the case of changing the governance structures of the BBC, and the corporation may, from time to time exhibit bias, but according to this survey at least, not in the way alleged by some of Whittingdale’s colleagues.
The Trust is certainly vulnerable and is almost certain to be either replaced or reformed. The challenge will be to ensure that this is done in such a way that it helps reinforce independence and good governance and not make the corporation more susceptible to political pressure from government, whichever party is in power.
Another area Whittingdale is looking at is the BBC’s websites. The charge is that they are competing unfairly with newspaper websites, especially local ones.
For so long as the Beeb carries news for free online with no advertising, it is impossible for newspapers to compete and why should a TV company be subsidised by licence payers to destroy the newspaper industry?
This is a reasonable argument and one which the BBC must address. However the competition argument is exaggerated.
For example BBC NI’s website template can manage 12 news stories plus four from “Foyle and West”.
How does this impinge on the Coleraine Chronicle or the Antrim Times? They have different, more specific markets.
And it is downright insulting to suggest that the number of stories covered comes anywhere near what the Irish News, News Letter and Derry Journal have to offer every day, never mind the particular stance on stories that readers of those papers enjoy.
There is a problem for newspapers developing presence and revenues online, but to suggest that that is all the fault of the BBC is absurd. There does need to be a dialogue and some kind of limits on what the BBC can do online to ensure fair competition but the current position is not as dire as is suggested. The challenge is more general: how publishers can persuade consumers that news requires resources, and those have to be paid for.
Next we get into the next line of inquiry. Has the BBC any right to make programmes that people enjoy watching, or should it be a kind of “Open University”?
Why should it broadcast The Voice or Strictly Come Dancing or the Great British Bake Off when commercial companies could make huge sums out of those programmes and generate revenue?
Some argue that the BBC should only produce “public service” broadcasting, presumably all good, important and worthy stuff, but programming that commercial broadcasters would not put on because they would not get either the subscriptions or advertising to justify it.
This is the aspect of impending change that would have most impact on the BBC, shrinking it in size, cutting off potential revenue and making it important and worthy rather than producing mass market entertainment, a prospect which commercial rivals drool over.
This would make TV in the UK much more like that in the USA and also as Whittingdale wants to get rid of the licence fee and potentially replace it with subscriptions, starving the BBC even further of revenue, because once forced into a “worthy” niche the BBC would struggle to gain the subscriptions required and it would be in a downward, perhaps terminal spiral.
The impact in Northern Ireland is easy to predict: as cuts deepen, output will be cut, redundancies made and the quality of what’s left diminished: news stories will not be as well researched authorities will not be called to account. That might suit some vested interests, but it is unlikely to be popular with the public at large.
There is a long way to go before change is announced. The BBC like all big organisations is in need of reform, there are questions about how it is governed, how it competes and how it is positioned for the future and all the changes that are happening and yet to happen in the way we consume our news and entertainment.
The organisation needs to embrace the challenge and acknowledge those areas where it needs to up its game.
Throughout all this It will be vital that the public gets a big say in what happens, rather than vested interests, many of whom would be delighted if the BBC were to be shrunk to promote “free market” so they can build their own profits without any regard for the opinions of those who really own the BBC, its licence payers.
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