The gloves came off at the International Television Festival in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, in the flurry of fists, it wasn’t always clear who the punches were aimed at – the BBC, BSkyB, ITV or the Government?
The hostilities began on Friday night during the annual McTaggart Lecture, which is traditionally an attack on the BBC (unless it’s being given by the BBC director-general, in which case it’s a defence). This year it was the turn of BSkyB’s chief executive Tony Ball and he didn’t pull his punches, launching a full-scale assault on the BBC’s spending and “expansionist ambitions”. But, surprisingly, he muffed it, enabling Greg Dyke to label the speech “a bit self-serving” and “less effective” than previous McTaggart attacks. The following morning, it attracted less press coverage than most.
Ball and his BSkyB advisers had decided to use the lecture to kick off the debate over the BBC’s Charter. They’d conducted an NOP survey which showed that 51 per cent of those asked did not think the licence fee was good value for money – up from 42 per cent four years ago. And they leaked it to Friday’s Guardian, as a taster for the speech itself.
With a sideswipe at the Government for “stuffing the BBC full of cash”, Ball put forward three proposals aimed at limiting the BBC’s role and forcing it to concentrate on “public service” programming. First, BBC1 and every other TV and radio network should be given a specific remit with measurable criteria, like the new digital channels News 24 and BBC3.
Second, public money should not be spent on certain types of programme, starting with US imports and films. “Last year the BBC spent over £100m on such shows, a 29 per cent increase over the figure five years ago” said Ball. “I really cannot see why public money is being diverted to those poor struggling Hollywood studios in this way… Why on earth did the BBC pay Warner Brothers squillions for the terrestrial rights to the first Harry Potter movie in the face of competition from other free-to-air channels?”
This radical but easily understood proposition – which might well attract support – was overshadowed by Ball’s third and even more radical proposal, which was clearly designed to grab the headlines. He suggested the BBC should sell off its most popular programmes to its commercial rivals, so as to raise money to plough into new public service programmes. As the Press Association put it, “BSkyB boss wants BBC to sell ‘Crown Jewels'”.
From the moment the idea was previewed to the press, shortly before the lecture, the reaction was an almost universal “You cannot be serious”. The Guardian described it as “extraordinary”, two ITV executives called it “bollocks” and “codswallop” and PACT, the producers’ association, said it was a non-starter.
The BBC said the comments had “to be seen in the context of Rupert Murdoch’s long and hostile campaign against the BBC” and “clearly reflect BSkyB’s view that programmes are merely a commodity to be bought and sold”.
The next morning, the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell also seemed underwhelmed by Ball’s view of the world (she said she’d not heard it, but two copies had been pushed under her hotel door!). Jowell repeated, without apology, a favourite phrase Ball had attacked in his lecture – the one about the BBC being part of “the national glue”, holding the community together.
But what everyone was waiting for was Greg Dyke’s response, in a session on the Sunday. He’d been expected to hit back at BSkyB, but it seemed he had a different target. Previewing his speech, under the headline “Blunders are killing ITV, warns Dyke”, the Observer wrote: “BBC chief Greg Dyke will launch a withering attack on ITV, predicting the imminent death of its public service remit… In his fiercest ever critique of his former paymasters, he will savage ITV management by highlighting six disastrous decisions which have left it in financial turmoil.”
Dyke did just that. He also announced a plan to open the BBC archives to the public via broadband. Yet Monday’s papers carried rather different assessments. “BBC chief warns over Murdoch dominance” was The Guardian splash – an angle that seemed to have escaped other media. The Telegraph front page reported: “Damaged ITV needs rescuing, says BBC boss Dyke.” And Murdoch’s Times, carried a large picture of Dyke kissing Dawn Airey, managing director of Sky Networks, over the headline “BBC to open its archives”.
The Independent front page carried echoes of The Guardian’s splash: “BBC launches public attack on Murdoch ‘imperialism'”. But this was based on an exclusive interview with BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey. Its report on the Dyke speech made no mention of Murdoch, focusing on his warning to the Government not to regard ITV as a “cash cow”. He said it should scrap the network’s £300m a year licence payments and allow Carlton to merge with Granada.
The cow wasn’t Dyke’s only animal metaphor: “A healthy broadcasting market in the UK needs a third gorilla alongside the BBC and Sky, and that gorilla should be an advertiser-funded, free-to-air television group with ITV at its heart.” This slightly oblique reference explains The Guardian’s Murdoch splash, implying that a strong ITV was needed as a counterweight to Sky.
But it prompted a wry riposte from PHD chairman Tess Alps discussing the future of ITV. In the advertising market, she said, a single ITV sales force would be a King Kong, surrounded by lots of little monkeys. “For advertisers,” she said, “it’s a truly scary picture”.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News