Imagine a highly successful brand, operating in a competitive market. It consistently holds leadership across most of the sectors it operates in, so much so that the Government confiscates a substantial wedge of its revenue and redistributes it to less successful rivals. Your reaction? Outrage at the thought of hard-won gains being squandered in the name of some soggy socialist ideal. Where are the rewards of success, you ask?
Now substitute “the BBC” for “a highly successful brand”. I thought so. At very best, your tone changes to a studied ambiguity about respected news values being underpinned by state subsidy; at worst, there is gleeful anticipation of a smug, obsolete monopoly getting its just come-uppance. This, after all, is the world of media. Different rules apply there: and for good reason.
By all means, let’s have a look at these rules, and in whose interest they should operate. The first thing to note is the BBC is not a monopoly, and has not been since 1955; it may be part of a complex monopoly, but only one in which ITV and Channel 4 are also complicit. In reality, the problem is with its anachronistic “corporatism”, which smacks of state monopolies in the pre-privatisation era, such as British Telecom, British Rail and British Gas. But there is an inconvenient truth about such a comparison – the unreformed BBC trounces its competition as a brand. Take the most recent Superbrands survey (MW last week). It was number five overall, in a field where its nearest competition was Sky at number 60 and Channel 4 at 392. The BBC also came in third among the many brands we surveyed in the last YouGov BrandIndex survey (MW 29 May, 2008). Similarly, a poll conducted last year among 10,000 people found the BBC the most internationally trusted news brand, ahead of CNN.
In this light, the extraordinary verbal assault on the BBC’s values and leadership by new culture secretary Ben Bradshaw (FT last week) looks like an act of carefully meditated spite. Bradshaw roundly condemned the BBC for its summary dismissal of the “top-slicing” proposal put forward in Lord Carter’s Digital Britain White Paper; which specifically involves ringfencing 3.5% of the £3.6bn licence fee to fund regional news broadcasts on ITV channels. He took the opportunity to lambast senior BBC executives for their “wrong-headed” attitude and claimed it fitted into a pattern of poor leadership that had left senior staff with “almost a feeling of despair”.
There is logic-chopping and distortion in this tirade, no doubt about it. The “despair” that BBC staffers feel (according to my soundings at any rate) is about top management’s steepling salaries, bonuses and expenses. I doubt that many would seriously question the chairman of the BBC Trust Sir Michael Lyons’ robust defence of the licence fee’s integrity. Or his contention that even one small concession – £130m in this case – would set a precedent for salami-chopping, turning the licence fee into a form of general taxation. The government’s changes of tack on distributing National Lottery revenues over the years is evidence that he has a point.
Nevertheless, in a wider sense, Bradshaw’s attack is well judged. The BBC has writhed with increasingly painful convulsions on the horns of a dilemma as we move further into the digital multichannel age. On the one hand, its historic mission has been to employ the public funds mandated to it to produce high-quality drama, cultural programming and news and current affairs. That might have been all right in the deferential days of Lord Reith; now it shades dangerously into being elitist. On the other hand, the licence fee is a universal levy: at some level, the BBC must embrace popular programming if it is to retain legitimacy in a democratic society. At what moment the pursuit of ratings – as for example in the case of Strictly Come Dancing, the hiring of Jonathan Ross or the tendering for hyper-expensive sports rights – perverts popularity into populism and the Reithian mission into a megalomaniac pursuit of global ambitions is, of course, a nice judgement. The point is the two polarising objectives, public service broadcasting and popularity, are eventually irreconcilable in this era of fragmenting media pluralism.
The BBC has writhed with increasingly painful convulsions on the horns of a dilemma as we move further into the digital multichannel age
The BBC clearly expects to kick this issue into touch for the time being, believing that Bradshaw’s bark is worse than his bite. It has reason to be confident. Establishing in law that the licence fee is harnessed to PSB rather than simply the BBC in itself – the principle underlying “top-slicing” – would require parliamentary legislation. While Bradshaw is adamant that something of the sort will make it into the Queen’s Speech in November, that it not quite the same as saying it will become a legislative fact. Time is running out for this Government, and the nearer we come to a General Election, the more it will have to drop from its programme. Moreover, the Conservatives – who on the balance of probabilities will form the next government – have said they will have no truck with top-slicing. Instead, they plan to deal with the growing crisis in public service broadcasting by setting up 80 so-called Local Media Companies. These would provide regional and local communities with TV, online and print services funded by local advertising and commercial services.
So, is the BBC off the hook? I don’t think so. The LMC proposals should no doubt be given a chance, but at the moment they sound unconvincing. By contrast, the principle of top-slicing – with the kicker for Westminster that it progressively shackles an unruly media institution – is just too tempting an opportunity for any government strapped for cash. And which government, in the years to come, will not be?
In a decade’s time I suspect the BBC will perform rather less well in brand surveys. The resources and self-confidence which produced one of the world’s leading websites and innovations such as the iPlayer will be as old hat as Lord Reith himself.