Public face of the corporation

The BBC’s new director-general, Mark Thompson, faces many hurdles – not least, the corporation’s role as a public service.

If BBC staff thought they were in for a quieter time in the wake of Greg Dyke and John Birt, it didn’t take long for them to be put straight. New director-general Mark Thompson hit the ground running when he took up his post last week.

Within hours of his arrival he had slimmed down the BBC’s top management board, from 17 people to nine, ousting BBC Worldwide chief executive Rupert Gavin, and director of news Richard Sambrook from the top table. He’d set up three new boards overseeing the BBC’s commercial activities, its creative output and its journalism. And he’d given his backing to changes to the BBC’s editorial and complaints procedures in the wake of the events that led to the Hutton Inquiry.

Perhaps most significantly, he’d set up reviews of two areas in which the BBC has faced sustained criticism from commercial rivals and suppliers: its commercial activities and its use of independent producers.

The first of these reviews will be welcomed by rival television channels, magazine publishers and online providers, which claim the BBC has been competing too hard with them on the back of licence-payers’ money. The second is good news for PACT, the lobby group for independent producers, which has been campaigning for greater access to the BBC’s airwaves and better terms of trade.

Thompson pulled no punches in his message to staff. Although he’s a BBC man through and through, having spent 20 years in the corporation, he’s returned with what he calls “the detachment of the outsider” after almost three years running Channel 4. He said : “The world of broadcasting and media is changing with the speed of an express train. We face amazing challenges and opportunities. We’re going to have to change the BBC more rapidly and radically over the next three to five years than at any point in its history.”

If that really is the case, we will see huge changes as the BBC faces up to the realities of the digital world. Crucial to its plans, which have been fleshed out this week in its case for the renewal of its charter, is the concept of the “public value” it can bring to the nation through its services.

This concept will underpin its reviews of commercial activities and independent productions, as Thompson explained. “BBC Worldwide [which sells BBC programmes, videos, books and magazines] and BBC Ventures [which runs the studios and technology sides] are both full of talent and they’ve already built enormous value for the public – but how can they build more? The test of public value is going to be key to us going forward. It’s a thread that runs all the way through our thinking about the next charter.”

Inside the BBC, the most sensitive issue is that of independent production, because if that increases significantly it means fewer programmes will be made in house, resulting in job losses and empty studios. For three years in a row, the BBC has failed (albeit narrowly) to meet its specified quota of independent productions, to the great frustration of PACT.

Thompson set this issue, too, in the context of the review of the BBC Royal Charter. “I’m certain extensive in-house production will be a critical part of the BBC’s future. But again we should apply the test of public value. How does the licence-payer benefit from a particular programme being supplied from within the BBC as opposed to from an indie?”

Regional production is another problem for the BBC. When ITV came under fire from MPs, for closing some of its regional studios, one of its senior executives, Clive Jones, tried to divert the fusillade onto the BBC, accusing it of missing its quotas here too. He told the select committee on culture, media and sport that 40 per cent of ITV’s network programming was made outside London – a higher proportion than either the BBC or Channel 4. “We have delivered on the promises we’ve made,” he said. “We’ve hit our quotas for regional and independent production. The BBC can’t hit theirs.”

Ofcom now regulates the quotas for regional and independent production, which means that if the BBC doesn’t hit its targets it’s likely to get shorter shrift than in the past. Here, too, Thompson has pinned his colours to the mast: “Before he left, Greg Dyke was determined to find a way of shifting a significant part of the BBC’s operations out of London into the rest of the UK. I believe this is the right strategy and I’m fully committed to it.”

It’s likely the offices of one BBC network will be moved out of London to ease the London “bias” perceived by those outside the capital. Dyke had wanted this to be Radio 5 Live, but that faces significant logistical problems as it depends on rapid access to the news and sports operations in west London.

Fledgling digital TV network BBC3 is being put forward as a better candidate. And at a time when ITV’s centre of gravity (if not production) has shifted from Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham to London, this would be a start.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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