The commercial uses of BBC abuses

Phew! Thank goodness for the BBC. Just when the commercial TV companies thought they were about to be crucified for cynically and dishonestly deceiving their viewers, along comes Auntie to prove that, once again, the public service broadcaster can comprehensively beat them at their own games.

Things had been looking bleak a week or two back. Icstis, the premium-rate phone regulator, accused Channel 4’s You Say We Pay (surely, You Pay We Say would be more appropriate?) of showing “reckless disregard” for viewers by inviting them to take part in a phone-in competition after the winners had already been selected. And imposed a record £150,000 fine on the hapless quiz operator, Eckoh. This came on top of the £300,000 fine Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, had imposed on Channel 5 only a few days previously for similar misdemeanours committed during Brainteaser, the phone-in quiz made by Endemol arm Cheetah (indeed).

But by the time Richard Ayre, heading Ofcom’s premium-rate telephone services investigation, came to report “systemic failures” relating to how all broadcasters managed their programmes, the BBC had long since stolen the show. Indeed, had taken the format on to a new plane.

Making a drama into a crisis
Thanks to Peter Fincham, Annie Leibowitz and the Queen, what had begun as a £50,000 fine imposed on Blue Peter (shocking enough in itself, admittedly) has been conflated into a national crisis of confidence over the trustworthiness of the broadcaster and its programme content generally. A BBC internal inquiry into editorial standards instigated immediately after the mis-spliced tape furore has seemingly revealed laxity and dishonesty at every level of programme-making. Children in Need, Comic Relief, Sport Relief… nothing apparently is sacred. All phone-in programmes have been suspended sine die; chairman of the BBC Trust Sir Michael Lyons has read the riot act; director-general Mark Thompson is sharpening the executioner’s axe; no murky nook of the BBC’s programme-making culture will be spared the inquisitor’s ruthless pursuit of the truth, we are told.

With blood freely spilling in the BBC editing suites, what an opportunity for the commercial broadcasters to get their revenge. And Michael Grade, executive chairman of ITV, duly took it: degraded standards of editorial integrity directly stem from the BBC’s obsession with beating the commercial sector at its own game, he says. That at least is the implication of his comments about the BBC employing young, inexperienced producers ignorant of the different standards to be applied to news and entertainment programme formats.

People in glass houses
No doubt he is right. Whether he is wise to have gone on the record is another matter. For this is the same Michael Grade who himself lately presided over the BBC as chairman, and under whom these suspect practices were presumably already flourishing. If he was ignorant of them at the time, then he can be accused of neglectful stewardship; if on the other hand he knew of them, or suspected them but said nothing, then he emerges in an even worse light.

But this is a minor debating issue. If the finger needs pointing at any leading BBC executive in recent times, it is not at Grade nor his director-general Greg Dyke but John Birt. It was in the soil of the Birtian revolution, with its mantra of a more commercial BBC featuring quotas, targets, performance-related bonuses, part-time contracts and the introduction of an “indie” production culture rooted in private sector values, that today’s blighted harvest was sown.

So when the commercial channels, mounting their favourite hobby horse, berate the BBC for being too ratings-driven and invading terrain they righteously regard as their own, they should have a care. The BBC, it turns out, has acted as an invaluable lightning conductor, deflecting scorching heat and searing light from where it might otherwise be usefully directed.

No doubt RDF (perpetrator of “Crowngate” and rather appropriately the maker of Faking It) provides a handy scapegoat for now. But everyone in the television industry, and not simply BBC executives, will be praying that measures to contain the ethical contagion spread no further than a few independent production companies that can’t hit back.

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