Broadcasting community searches for bearings

The broadcasting policy community is having great difficulty in findings its bearings following the change of government and the speech by the UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, in which he made some vaguely warm noises about the BBC, killed off the idea of independently financed news consortia to deliver regional news to ITV, and hung his hat on superfast broadband and experiments in local television.

Just how difficult was illustrated at a conference on the future of public service broadcasting at London’s City University, last week, two days after the Hunt speech. The conference was the culmination of an online public service broadcasting forum organised by opendemocracy.net

Despite ritual acknowledgements of the Government’s right to make political decisions the regulator Ofcom must be disappointed that so little positive change has emerged from its second major review of public service broadcasting.

Despite Hunt’s attempts at reassuring the BBC – “a great national institution, quite rightly the envy of the world…nothing this government does will compromise either the independence of the BBC or the quality of its output” – the corporation remains on the back foot, and defensive about a BBC Strategy Review that has failed to convince most of its friends let alone its enemies. At the conference Caroline Thompson, the BBC’s Chief Operating Officer, struggled to describe a ‘big idea’ in the review.

She would not have been comforted by Tessa Jowell’s assertion that the BBC was in for ‘the fight of its life’. Nor by her revelation that, during her six years as Culture Secretary, “I was the only advocate for the BBC in the Government”. Even she, as a member of the Labour Cabinet, “found it difficult to understand the degree of hostility towards the BBC in political circles”. Caroline Thompson had to admit that although support for the BBC amongst the public was still strong – she said it was actually growing – the BBC did have a problem with its stakeholder community.

Asked about Hunt’s assurances regarding the BBC, Jowell said that “the Tory commitment is very elastic” and that the government would have no difficulty in expressing its support for the BBC even while pushing it to be smaller. She thought the corporation’s culture was “out of time” and that it had “backed off from real accountability”. However, suitably reformed it could become “the biggest mutual in the country”.

Even more pessimism came from Frank Field, Labour’s intellectual awkward squad, who saw the BBC as the most important remnant of an accepted public ideology that he defined as “English idealism”. He thought it difficult to imagine that the licence fee would not be cut and thought “the whole structure is in danger of annihilation within 20 years”. He did not think the status quo was sustainable. Field and Jowell were sympathetic to the notion of carving out part of the licence fee to give to a public service broadcasting commission as contestable funding.

The BBC was not without its defenders. Professor Steven Barnett, a long-time staunch defender of the BBC, thought it’s accountability structures were “hard to beat” and would have no truck with incursions into the licence fee. Deploying the ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument, he thought that a diversion of five per cent of the licence fee would grow inexorably to 10 or 20 per cent, although it was pointed out that such a system had operated in the Irish Republic with some real benefits for quality output. He thought that if the BBC were cut back there was very little evidence that the private sector would fill the gap.

Blair Jenkins, who chaired the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, and I spoke for Scotland and Wales alongside Richard Hooper, who led the selection panel in the contest for the three pilots for independently financed news consortia, a concept now sadly aborted. Hooper spoke about the quality of the ideas that emerged from the contest and agreed that the situation in the devolved nations was quite different to that in the English regions.

The news services for the devolved nations on ITV are in limbo. Although the new management at ITV is now telling the regulator that it will stick by these services, the fact that it has apparently discovered a value in regional news demonstrates how subjective and self-interested these judgments can be. It also calls into question whether Ofcom was right in acquiescing in ITV’s serial requests to reduce its obligations over the last decade.

In the margins of the conference it was suggested that ITV’s eagerness to ditch the independent news consortia had much to do with the idea that the new Chairman, Archie Norman, is intent on putting the ITV house in order in preparation for a sale. “He doesn’t want to know about anything complicated – nothing that can’t be explained to an American buyer in less than ten words,” I was told.

It was striking that the audience showed considerable sympathy for the aspirations that Blair Jenkins and I set out for our respective patches – in my case, the IWA response to the BBC Strategy Review – although any argument about a better dispensation for Wales always prompts a reference to the S4C budget – the elephant in the room.

No-one spoke up for Jeremy Hunt’s endorsement of local television. Indeed, Clare Enders, a respected analyst, demolished the proposition, pointing out that American conditions could not be replicated in Britain and that much local television in Europe was itself public subsidised.

A more despairing interpretation of the Hunt speech was a speculation that he was deliberately setting out to create a vacuum to see what ideas would emerge. If this were the case, it might be taken as an interesting innovation in policy creation. But I doubt it.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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