Why we should defend the BBC from this Sky-led bombardment

A serious case of bear-baiting has broken out in the UK. While we stand back and watch, various packs of vicious dogs are being released and are sinking their teeth into the hounded animal. It is a cruel thing to observe because the bear seems so defenceless, and yet we have been cajoled into thinking this is fair play.

Ray Snoddy

For the bear, read the BBC – and open season has been declared on the publicly funded broadcaster.

It’s not that the Beeb has changed in some way recently to warrant such brutality. If anything it is noticeably more efficient, having shaved off more than 3,000 jobs. It has also made efforts to make its behaviour and governance more transparent. And there is little sign that its vast output of original programming is any the less appreciated by its audience than before or that the licence fee has become markedly less A
acceptable, apart from to those who have always been opposed to it on principle.

No, the reasons for the current attacks lie beyond the BBC’s influence.

The recession has exaggerated the structural change hitting the traditional television advertising market and has exposed the relative prosperity enjoyed by the BBC compared with commercial broadcasters because of its funding mechanism. Then along came James Murdoch with his mantra that the BBC is far, far too big. There are some who believe that Murdoch’s attack was so crude and so obviously selfserving that it had the opposite effect and strengthened the BBC.

If only. Murdoch has managed to insert a simple little phrase into public discourse and I’m hearing it parroted back from otherwise intelligent people so that no one now asks “how big” or “big for what purpose exactly”. It even came out of the mouth of culture secretary Ben Bradshaw at the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention. Murdoch, said Bradshaw, “did us all a favour” by “raising genuine concerns” about the BBC’s size, its remit and its impact on the rest of the British media industry.

Perhaps, but reasons behind Murdoch’s outburst have become a little clearer since September with the decision of The Sun to support David Cameron. You don’t exactly have to be a conspiracy theorist to work out what is happening here. News Corporation wants to charge for its online newspaper content around the world, and what is the main obstacle standing in the way of that? Why the BBC website, of course. How much better if it were closed down or curbed!

“The reason this sounds like a bad idea is because it is a bad idea,” said Mark Scott, managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, recently. Strip away the grand phrases and what Murdoch is trying to do is destroy the BBC, which would be, according to Scott: “A tragedy for the UK, a tragedy for the world.”

What mugs we would be if we allowed it to happen. After all, Sky’s revenues are already £5.3bn and growing fast – a long way ahead of the BBC’s £3.4bn – yet its size does not concern Murdoch.

The other obvious problem is that we are only months away from a general election. Bradshaw would like to abolish the BBC Trust set up only
two years ago by his predecessor and divert 3.5% of licence fee money.

Cameron, on the other hand, is keener to curb communications regulator Ofcom, and there is a real possibility that an arbitrary figure will be
chopped off the licence fee – say for the sake of argument 10%. That would mean real services that the public enjoy would have to go.

Into this toxic brew has been stirred the BBC’s own, unrelated but nonetheless damaging, ingredients. They include the size of the director
general’s salary (though why this should be no more than the Prime Minster’s pay is not obvious to me; after all, PMs have othercompensations). Then there are the ludicrous, private sector-style bonuses, the pay and behaviour of Jonathan Ross, the unnecessary insensitivy of the Strictly Come Dancing scheduling and the purchase of Lonely Planet. All different; all within BBC and Trust rules; and all capable of defence. Yet the overall impression created by these is one of arrogance and, well, of a BBC that has got a bit too big for its boots.

Does any of this matter for the marketing community, apart from the fact that marketers are citizens too?

It does, because in these dire times the BBC represents a corner of financial stability for the production community and ad industry, which is surely something that ministers and would-be ministers should encourage. Anyone who believes in the future of television advertising and that the recession will turn, will see the longer term sense in that.

Of course there will be a time when the long term future of the BBC, its financing and its remit will have to be discussed, but not yet, and
not by releasing packs of baying dogs.

For now, it’s time for the bear to break free of its chains and start defending itself a bit.

Raymond Snoddy presents the BBCTelevision viewer access programmeNewswatch. Contact him atraymond.snoddy@googlemail.com

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