Pulling punches over BBC battle

If there is one thing advertisers and the commercial television companies can categorically agree upon, it is the need to hobble an overweening BBC. But those rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of a settling of accounts at the next review of the BBC Charter will have searched in vain the entrails of culture secretary Tessa Jowell’s keynote speech at the RTS Convention last week for any hopeful portents. Jowell stuck judiciously to the suggestion that the BBC had every right to report anti-government views during times of war.

Should we take her at her word? Ah well, not necessarily. If history is any guide, governments are only too pleased to engage in a vendetta when circumstances are opportune. Former BBC director-general Alasdair Milne and various ex-Thames Television executives are living testament to the consequences of government displeasure. So why should this administration be any different to its predecessors?

But, the BBC’s plight is much more complicated than a rather serious spat with Number 10 over the 45-minute claim. Patricia Hodgson was (characteristically) very blunt about this when she told the Convention that the BBC was in ‘deep trouble’ and in a much worse position than at the time of the last charter review. In her capacity as chief executive of the obsolete Independent Television Commission, such comments might be regarded as run-of-the-mill Beeb-bashing. But they deserve much more serious consideration when we remember that this is the self-same Hodgson who, as former BBC director of strategy, played an integral role in the last round of negotiation.

A key point in her analysis was that the BBC had alienated not one but both of the major political parties. The Conservatives are actively canvassing a cut in the licence fee. This is fertile ground for a major lobbying assault by the commercial sector which (to some extent justifiably) feels aggrieved by the swings-and-roundabouts advantages the BBC secured from the last charter agreement.

A crucial issue this time round is the radically changing nature of viewing behaviour. Now that so many homes are multichannel, and BSkyB is on target for a third of UK households, where is the rationale for that poll tax sometimes known as the licence fee? Judged on simple viewing figures, fast evaporating – and therefore tempting political capital for any party wishing to curry favour with non-BBC-viewing voters.

But the commercial sector should be careful of pursuing its case too vigorously. In the longer term, a radical restructuring of BBC financing is both desirable and unavoidable. Short term, it would prove a disaster not only for the BBC, but much of the commercial sector as well.

At a time when ITV is (largely for self-inflicted reasons) weak, the quality of BBC programmes is likely to provide the most substantial defence against a raft of public-service lite foreign investors in UK TV.

One card which will help the BBC to play its hand better is the need for a rapid and pluralistic migration from analogue to digital TV to succeed. No sane government would wish to jeopardise Freeview’s position and engineer a situation where Rupert Murdoch concentrated substantially more UK TV distribution into his hands.

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