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March 4, 2010

BBC cuts - appeasement or a very cunning plan?

Filed under: Blogroll, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 4:02 pm

John Tulloch, head of the Lincoln School of Journalism, argues that the latest BBC cuts are unlikely to placate the corporation’s most determined enemies who want to give Aunty a good kicking - but could quieten some of its critics in the run-up to the general election

The BBC cuts, confirmed on 1 March 2010, in a ’strategy review’ - £600 million on an overall licence fee income of £4.6 billion in 2009 - will not be sufficient to placate the BBC’s most determined enemies, although they may quieten some of its more vociferous critics in the run-up to the general election. Cutting a couple of digital networks (BBC 6 Music, the Asian Network), halving the size of the website, losing one in four website staff and reducing imports of US series will, claims BBC director general Mark Thompson, allow extra resources to be channelled into domestic programme production and facilitate a licence fee freeze in 2013.

The enemies of Britain’s most popular institution can be divided into three major groups. Most noisy are sections of the commercial press, including the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and Times, and the commercial broadcasting sector led by News Corporation, headed by the crown prince of global media, James Murdoch. They complain that the BBC’s licence fee funding allows it to provide a range of ‘free’ services that crowd out competition.

Notoriously at the last Edinburgh Television Festival (in August 2009) young Murdoch, favourite son of the more famous Rupert, used his MacTaggart lecture to accuse the BBC of a ‘chilling’ effect on its media rivals and that its free news services online made it ‘incredibly difficult’ for other providers to ask consumers to pay for news. ‘The expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision.’

A left/liberal conspiracy?

These commercial interests intermesh with a range of political ideologues, from both right and left, who regard the BBC as a left/liberal conspiracy to undermine conservative values or an insufferably arrogant establishment organisation which marginalises minority and radical voices. The third ingredient in the brew is party politicians, who scent political advantage in giving Aunty a kicking, and may have alliances with commercial interests who see benefit in this. Most of them find their home in the Conservative Party.

This alliance of enemies has been consistent pretty much from the setting up of the corporation in 1927. In fact, it goes right back to the BBC’s origins as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922. This was an alliance of the major radio manufacturers brought together by the Post Office to provide a monopoly service of programmes. It was beset by restrictions - not allowed to provide news programmes and not funded by advertising but a licence fee attached to the possession of a radio set.

Essentially this was a trade off between competing commercial and political interests. The newspaper industry saw radio broadcasting as a huge potential rival for news audiences and advertisers. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail aspired to operate radio stations for profit but did not want them in the hands of commercial rivals. The radio manufacturing lobby, which owed its origins to fat World War One contracts to provide wirelesses for the armed forces, wanted access to a growing market for sets and needed a reliable source of programmes. And the political class was transfixed by the potential power of broadcasting to take news and entertainment into the nation’s homes but fearful of that power being put into the hands of overmighty Press Barons such as Lords Northcliffe, Beaverbrook and Rothermere. As for the Post Office - it simply wanted a stable system, safe for King and Country, after a visit to the US presented a vivid picture of capitalism red in tooth and claw as hundreds of radio stations were set up and died in a radio boom and bust.

The result was a classic British compromise in which the press was kept out of ownership but given assurances that their markets for news and advertising would not be endangered while the radio lobby was given a captive market in which to churn out sets.

Elaborate ideology of public service

The British Broadcasting Corporation - built on these foundations in 1927 - cemented this monopoly and invented an elaborate ideology of public service broadcasting based on the licence fee system with a mission to ‘educate, inform and entertain’ and a historically unique commitment to a form of cultural democracy - anyone who paid the licence fee had access to the service wherever they were located and whatever their class. News was grudgingly added to its remit, despite newspaper pressure, but only became very significant in the corporation’s operations during World War Two.

There were of course historic losers and malcontents outside the framework of this trade-off. One group was advertisers who wanted to exploit the new service to sell audiences to clients. Another was entrepreneurs who wanted to set up broadcasting stations and proclaimed the virtues of the free market. A third was an amorphous group of political ideologues and activists - social conservatives on the right and radicals on the left - who in their different ways variously attacked the suffocating and broadly consensus building centrist politics of the BBC, assailing the largest cultural bureaucracy in Europe as, on the one hand, a refuge for lefties and communists and on the other, insufferably wedded to the British state and monarchy and middle class values.

By the 1930s the BBC’s enemies had established a commercial radio system abroad, beaming programmes into Britain from France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, funded by British advertisers, despite the best efforts of the BBC to close them down. Roughly half the working class audience had defected to these stations, especially on the deadly dull BBC Sunday. World War Two started disastrously for the BBC, with bored troops engaged in a ‘phoney’ war driven to near mutiny by its tedious fare, but improved with the forced closure of its continental rivals and the reinvention of the corporation as a national entertainer, utilising dance music, popular comedy shows and American style radio formats.

A great national consensus builder

Reborn as a great national consensus builder, the BBC maintained its monopoly until the mid-1950s. It was the advent of television that provided the BBC’s enemies in the Conservative Party and their allies in the City of London with the opportunity to push for the introduction of commercial broadcasting. The argument was that television was being introduced slowly and reluctantly by the BBC - a reasonable assumption, as television soaked up roughly ten times the production costs of radio. It was also reasonable to look for a newly revived industrial sector, and a burgeoning post-war advertising industry to take the strain, as it had in the United States.

Thus was established a major pattern in the BBC’s development. It was post-war Conservative governments that largely looked to restrict BBC expansion and cap or even abolish the licence fee. It was Labour governments, who were not ideologically unfriendly to a non-commercial ethos and an ideology of public service, that by and large facilitated BBC expansion.

Labour in the early 1960s allowed the creation of BBC2 and, after moving to abolish pirate radio, encouraged the BBC to provide a substitute in the shape of Radio 1 and to commence the creation of a network of local radio stations. A second Conservative government, in the early 1970s, introduced commercial radio and backed the creation of Channel 4.

Of course it’s naïve to paint Labour as the BBC’s protector. The Blair government’s ‘New Labour’ project consistently regarded the BBC as a major obstacle to its mission to manage the news. Blair’s most significant media alliance was with the Sun. And it was Blair that oversaw the most extraordinary crisis in relations between government and BBC in the nation’s history - the removal of both chairman and director general in the fallout from the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly, the whistleblowing arms inspector who was outed as a BBC source.

Lovingly documented scandals

Cut to 2010. Labour still in power but prospects of a Conservative government. A slump in advertising, a continuing decline in newspaper readership, and a severe cutback in commercial television news. Some lovingly documented scandals, such as Ross-Brand and BBC executive pay, are stoked up by the popular press, notably the Sun and the Daily Mail. A well-publicised alliance between the largest media group, Murdoch’s News International and Sky, and the Conservative leadership, which accompanies a sustained attack by all Murdoch outlets on the BBC. And a high profile Murdoch agenda to find a way of charging for online content that sees the BBC’s formidable but ‘free’ online presence as a huge obstacle to its strategy.

Widespread suspicions that a deal has been done between two traditional enemies of the BBC. Consistently orchestrated attacks on an ‘overlarge’, ‘arrogant’ BBC, safely buttressed in the worst recession in 60 years by an inflation-protected licence fee. BBC executives - 140 reported as earning more than the Prime Minister - skilfully delegitimated as cousins of banking fatcats.

Reasonable then to interpret the BBC’s proposed cuts in its website and digital services as a pre-emptive strike to defuse the venom of an incoming Conservative government and take control of a news agenda that has mainly consisted of negative stories. But the Murdoch agenda is unlikely to be satisfied by the marginal cuts proffered so far. While The Times gleefully leaked the story under the headline ‘BBC signals an end to era of expansion’, its leader writer signalled no let up in the Murdoch agenda. Under a headline: ‘Big, bloated and cunning’ we learned:

Proposals seen by The Times look like a welcome recognition that the empire has gone too far, and should focus back on quality programming. But they actually constitute an evasive and artful strategy designed to keep the next government from intervening, while in reality changing very little. (The Times 26 February 2010)

It seems a big fuss to make about an institution that costs most Britons 39p a day. Murdoch would like Radio 1 and 2 hived off, the website charged for or abolished and the competition to Sky - the BBC’s main rival - scaled down. How much might Cameron concede? Tricky given the BBC’s enduring popularity - nearly 8 out of 10 Britons still believe the BBC is a ‘national institution we should be proud of’ according to a 2009 ICM poll. Expect to hear nothing until after polling day. If you want to dismantle a national treasure, proceed with stealth, never forget and never forgive.

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