I’m afraid the first thing that ran through my head as I listened to Rupert Murdoch excoriating the BBC in Birmingham last week was: “It’s good to sit down.”
It had been a busy morning: three live broadcasts for the the BBC’s new continuous news channel, News 24, since 8.30am, preparations for another live for the One O’Clock News on BBC1 (eventually dropped, thankfully) and much of the rest of the time spent arranging coverage and deploying crews. All made more complex by the fact that Murdoch’s speech was being relayed live to London on a pool basis with an ITN camera, a Sky camera and a BBC link vehicle.
Murdoch’s lunchtime address represented the first opportunity that morning actually to sit down, listen and take proper note of any of the speeches at the European Audiovisual Conference, which had invited him to speak to an audience of 450 broadcasters and regulators from across Europe.
The second thought – and I’m sorry if this sounds just the teensiest bit disloyal – was the hope that Murdoch’s attack on the above-mentioned News 24 might result in its demise.
His objection to it is that it is funded by the licence fee and distributed free to cable companies, and is thus competing unfairly with his own commercially-funded Sky News, for which cable companies must pay. It subsequently emerged that the European Commission’s competition authorities are looking closely at News 24 as part of a wider inquiry into whether state-subsidised public service broadcasters like the BBC are distorting the market.
My own objection is that News 24’s arrival has added an extra half dozen or more to the large number of editors across the BBC (113 by my estimate) who are entitled to ring a BBC correspondent to commission a piece (or, if not actually entitled, behave as if they are).
Serving so many masters can be difficult – for one thing, it leaves little time in which to find out what’s actually going on. What’s more, the increase in outlets coupled with the demands on the BBC to make its accounts more “transparent” mean an increase in paperwork as well.
The news gathering department, for which I work, supplies the raw material of news to programmes paid for in three quite different ways: those on BBC1, Radio 4 and Radio 5 (and, indeed, News 24) are paid for out of the licence fee; those on BBC World Service radio out of a Foreign Office grant-in-aid; those on BBC World, the international television news channel, are commercially-funded by BBC Worldwide.
Each bit of the BBC – as well as the Foreign Office and the BBC’s commercial partners – want to know what they’re getting for their money. Along with the BBC’s commercial rivals, they also want reassurance that the licence fee isn’t subsidising the other services, and vice versa.
The commercial rivals have been complaining to the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media & Sport that they can’t get the figures they want from the BBC’s published accounts. That may be because the BBC itself didn’t always have them in the past.
But it will soon. My department now expects me and my colleagues to account for our time and the resources we use in considerable detail, so that costs can be apportioned properly. Lawyers and other professionals are used to this kind of thing: as journalists we aren’t (and I’m not sure we’re very good at it). It all costs time and money, it doesn’t make the BBC’s journalism any better and it offers no tangible benefits to viewers and listeners.
On the other hand, you can’t really blame the BBC for launching News 24. Faced with research evidence that the audience for conventional news programmes was declining and that the growing numbers of people in cable and satellite homes saw BBC news as remote and unfriendly, a continuous news channel with an informal presentation style had much to recommend it.
Also (though pips like me may squeak) it squeezes more value out of the existing BBC news machine and offers viewers something extra for their licence fee: though now available only in cable homes, the channel will eventually get near-100 per cent distribution thanks to digital television.
The issues surrounding News 24 are typical in many ways of the wider issues, internal and external, raised by the aggressive posture the BBC has adopted – in the face of increasing competition and regular demands down the years from government to increase commercial income.
Of course, the BBC is a powerful player, well-practised in the art of political lobbying, and its commercial rivals are right to be wary of it and to seek to ensure that it can’t abuse its position. But that position is inevitably weakening as more competitors emerge.
What’s more the BBC is not a commercial organisation and its public service character (not to mention its bureaucratic habits) mean it has great difficulty in behaving in a purely commercial way. It must be a view no doubt shared by a succession of executives from the commercial world who have been drafted in to sharpen the Corporation’s commercial sensors in recent years, only to depart muttering about the impossible nature of the task.
I don’t expect Rupert Murdoch to love the BBC. But he might acknowledge that it isn’t really the carnivorous monster he pretended in Birmingham.