Time for the BBC to be on the front foot

Geraint Talfan Davies assesses the MacTaggart lecture by the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson

The James MacTaggart lecture, given by the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson, at the Edinburgh Festival last week was an unmistakable sign that the battle is now joined for the future of the BBC’s licence fee funding, and perhaps for the BBC’s overall mission. The licence fee is due for government review in 2013.

It was certainly a front-foot performance from Thompson, taking the fight directly to the BBC’s most formidable opponent, Sky, and reminding us that the BBC, far from being a giant oak overshadowing some wilted plants – such as ITV, Channel 4 and Five – has actually been overtaken in income terms by Sky itself.

Some on the commercial side may complain that the BBC has an undue dominance because of its funding and its combination of television and radio services. However, the Murdoch family has itself developed an unprecedented commercial dominance, and arguably a more pernicious one. It not only controls the most powerful digital broadcasting platform but also an enormous slice of the British newspaper market, a market which is not required to obey any of broadcasting’s current rules regarding impartiality and fairness.

It was in last year’s MacTaggart lecture, that Sky’s boss, James Murdoch, argued for doing away with these allegedly irksome rules in British television, presumably to allow a British equivalent of his father’s American Fox channel to develop here.

No-one would deny the BBC’s ubiquity and the power of its brand, but it is clear that the BBC’s opponents have singularly failed to persuade the public that this represents a malign influence in British public or commercial life. On the contrary, in a post-Lehman zeitgeist where market fundamentalism is now subject to widespread ridicule, the BBC is more in tune with the public mood than it has been at any time in the last three decades. It is widely seen as the most powerful guarantor of a crucial public space between the partisan worlds of the central state and commerce.

It was David Marquand who wrote a very eloquent defence of this threatened public space, in a compelling book, Decline of the Public. He saw the public domain as outside party politics, “the domain of citizenship, equity and service”, essential to democratic governance and social well-being – “both priceless and precarious – a gift of history which is always at risk”. He argued that that domain is now at risk from a combination of “market mimicry, populist governance and central control”, all of which are linked and feed each other.

It is difficult to think of a more effective way of shrinking that public domain in Britain than to diminish the BBC. Enough damage has been done already to the corporation this decade. It has been a more nervous institution since losing both a Chairman and Director General in the wake of the Hutton inquiry and the substitution of the BBC Trust for the old Board Governors.

What the BBC and Thompson desperately need to do now is to demonstrate a tactical sure-footedness that is equal to the strength of their advocacy. At present the BBC is playing catch-up on the top salaries and pensions front, so a new speed of response is essential.

Opponents of the BBC argue that a compulsory licence fee cannot survive  indefinitely in the new digital babel. In theory one can conceive of circumstances in which this might become true. But there is no certainty that those circumstances will emerge in the next decade. The key public interest question is a practical not a theoretical or ideological one. What do we need to conserve now and in the medium term to safeguard the public domain that enlightened public service broadcasting in general, and the BBC in particular, represents? Thompson cited four pillars of the system:

  1. The mixed funding model that has allowed us to invest far more per head of population in original production than any comparable country.
  2. A broadcasting culture that emphasises broad services – founded on the idea of public space – rather than individual programmes.
  3. A history of editorial independence from political and commercial influence.
  4. Support of the British public.

Those who would happily dismantle the BBC take no account of the fact that these four things enjoy an effective interdependence. This is mainly because they do have some institutional expression – the BBC, Channel 4, S4C – that allows for the development of an historically-based, sustaining ethos, an important counterweight to the whimsical dictates of market-driven fashion. That need not imply any resistance to change, as the BBC’s leadership in the development of online services has demonstrated over the last dozen years.

Thompson enjoined us all to “concentrate on what matters most and on the issues and actions that could actually make a difference”. We should, he said, think big, not small. He wants British television to make an even bigger mark in international media markets. He wants British indigenous production to thrive. So far, so good. But, sadly he emphasises this ‘big picture’ by contrasting it with ‘comically parochial’ issues such as “the number of early evening news magazines you can watch in Northants”.

The gap between the parochial and the big picture is not as large as Thompson’s throwaway might suggest. He cites the fact that since 2004 the British television production pot has shrunk by around £300 million – down from £2.9m to £2.6m. It is worth remembering that a substantial part of that £300 million drop has come from  cuts in regional programme services, firstly in ITV, but increasingly now in the BBC’s own services in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And the decline is scheduled to continue for at least another two years.

In seeking support for his big picture – a support which is usually generously given in Wales – he would do well to remember that the public space that he seeks to defend is not in one place. The BBC is already shrinking the public domain in Wales by withdrawing funds. He and his team recently produced a strategy which, inexplicably and inexcusably, did not refer to the services for the smaller nations. (See here) The BBC’s defence of the public domain, wherever it is, should be indivisible.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA and a former Controller of BBC Wales.

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