BBC Funding

UPDATE: This article was originally written in January 2010 before the UK general election where The Sun newspaper backed the Conservative Party. Critics of Rupert Murdoch alleged that a deal was done between the Conservative Party and News International to guarantee support. Jeremy Hunt, then Culture Secretary, was believed to be keen to allow News International  to buy the proportion of  Sky News it did not already own.  His Lib – Dem colleague Vince Cable, of course, was less than happy to see it go through (and was secrety recorded saying so). Had Hunt had his way, the Murdoch bid would have surely gone through. Unfortunately, it was scuppered by a scandal entirely of The Sun’s own making –  which began with the hacking of the mobile phone of a murdered school girl. The result was the Leveson Inquiry and the closure of the News of The World.

Since this article was written the BBC has also been hit by an unprecedented number of scandals which has no doubt damaged its public reputation and given plenty of ammo to its numerous critics in the press. This included (but not limited to) the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal (allegations of a cover-up), Lord McAlpine (Newsnight falsely implicated him in child abuse scandal) and the Digital Media Initiative (costs involved in moving to a new streamlined IT system) and allegations of massive ‘golden goodbyes’ to the bosses responsible for all the mistakes. 


Key Arguments of the Anti-BBC lobby

The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Times, Daily Telegraph and other British newspapers often run stories attacking the BBC, the license-fee and the public service broadcasting (PSB) model.

These attacks have become more frequent as the BBC’s commercial rivals have suffered in a declining advertising market. Put simply, commercial operators face a high demand for quality programming, yet face declining revenues from advertising.

Based on this evidence, it could be argued that a proportion (or a ‘top-slice’, as its become known) of the money that the BBC receives through the license fee should be shared amongst commercial TV providers. In particular, this could help safeguard ITV regional news which is in a dire state. But sharing out this money would almost certainly reduce the amount of revenue that the BBC receives.

Some would even argue that corporate mismanagement and shareholder greed in the good years has been the cause of much of ITV and Channel 4’s current woes (who could forget Channel 4’s disastrous foray into digital radio).  Commercial providers are more than capable of wasting shed loads of money on their own and shouldn’t be using BBC license fee cash to bail them out.

The anti-BBC lobby believe that less regulation of the media would allow for more competition, better value and improved standards. Ironically, these same BBC critics would usually want to see more regulation placed on the BBC (particularly in the markets it can operate in).

Back in the real world, research suggests that the public would like a strengthening of PSB obligations amongst commercial operators, particular if it led to improvements in regional news output.

We currently pay just 39p a day to receive BBC output on TV, radio and online and research suggests that the majority of people in Britain view this as offering good value for money.

Yet this doesn’t stop the anti-BBC bashing. Whilst small in number, the opponents are powerful people and very vocal. For example, Rupert Murdoch uses his newspaper and TV stations to run stories which undermine the BBC.

These attacks tend to focus on (in no particular order):

  • Executive pay (it’s too much, according to many newspapers)
  • On-screen talent pay (ditto the above…Jonathan Ross normally gets a mention here)
  • Broadcasting standards (alleged decline. See recent attacks by Daily Mail on Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand).
  • BBC News website (it’s alleged it undermines the success of commercial rivals. This attack regularly appears in The Guardian newspaper, which funnily enough is attempting to expand its own news site).
  • BBC Worldwide, the commercial division of the BBC (ditto the above. Commercial magazine publishers claim Worldwide prevents growth in the sector. It’s worth noting that Worldwide pumps its profits, from mags like Radio Times and Top Gear, directly back into BBC programming).
  • BBC going beyond its brief (i.e. BBC enters markets which are seen as ‘none core’. It seems that if a programming format is deemed too successful, the anti-BBC lobby thinks only the commercial sector should do it.
  • BBC delivering on its brief (i.e. programming aimed at minority interests, with relatively small audiences. Daily Mail wonders who the heck listens to 1 Xtra? Also, can someone explain what ‘grime music’ is?)
  • Liberal bias in news (a classic attack from the right, although politicians from all sides have questioned the BBC’s political independence. Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp runs Fox News in the US, has long argued for a relaxation in broadcast impartiality rules in the UK).  

These arguments must be unpacked and constantly challenged.

  • The anti-BBC lobby would love to introduce more regulations to place strict limits on the markets that the BBC can operate in. If so, we can wave goodbye to many globally successful shows such as Top Gear, The Weakest Link and Strictly.
  • They want to prevent the BBC from paying its creative talent a market rate salary. The commercial sector has always pays on-screen talent more than the BBC and most people can make more by moving to the commercial sector.
  • The BBC MUST be allowed to compete and produce successful programmes. It won’t be able to do this if it is over-regulated. Over-regulation will eventually kill the BBC.
  • The renewal of the license fee in 2012 is certainly a key date for supporters of the BBC. It’s already in Rupert Murdoch’s diary and it’s likely that News International (and others in the commercial sector) will use this as an opportunity to lobby hard. Murdoch already uses his newspapers as a platform to attack the BBC and we can expect far more of this.
  • PSB is not dead in an age of multi-channel TV: Murdoch hypnotises us with the promise of zillions of channels on SKY. But he’s deliberately confusing choice with quality.
  • The commercial sector only wants to make more money and they see the BBC is standing in their way. Nothing wrong with wanting to make money, but it’s not OFCOM’s or the BBC Trust’s job to help them ramp up their profits further. Indeed, it must be vigorous in strengthening the PSB model and the BBC’s commercial independence.

Murdoch has supporters in the Conservative Party.

The anti-BBC lobby has found a new political champion in the form of Jeremy Hunt, Tory Shadow Culture Secretary.

In a crude bit of editorialising, The Guardian described Hunt as an ‘affable figure’ and a ‘moderniser’. But should the Conservatives win,  Hunt has made it crystal clear he would use his role in overseeing the renewal of the BBC licence fee in 2012 to examine key areas of BBC funding, remit and pay….that means ‘CUTS’ to you and me.

Did the Tories do a deal with Rupert Murdoch over the issue of BBC funding in a bid to guarantee his support in the upcoming election?

If Hunt gets his way, the axe is certain to fall on the BBC. But where do you start cutting? Will it be the stuff which is considered easy – BBC3? Radio 1 Xtra?, 6 Music? These are perhaps the easiest of targets for self-interested politicians.

The impact of the BBC in raising the quality of commercial rivals is an area which is often ignored. Commercial rivals have to raise their game to compete.

Quality programming is expensive and, sure, times are tough in the commercial world right now. But starve the BBC of funding (or over regulate it so much it eventually withers and dies) and standards on commercial TV will fall overnight.

Some commercial rivals understand this. ITN (the company behind ITV and Channel 4 News), for example, appreciates the BBC’s role in improving standards. The BBC is a formidable rival in news. But there is still a role for commercial rivals.

ITN provides equally great news coverage on very limited resources. It offers something different – perhaps a new angle, a more popular news agenda and an innovative and engaging presentation. The BBC way is not the only way to do news.

Also, where do broadcast journalists and media people get most of their training…the BBC! In a lot of cases, BBC creative talent will bugger off and make shed loads more money in the commercial sector. Yet, amazingly, the BBC doesn’t mind this!  The entire commercial sector benefits from the training and opportunities that the BBC offers.

It’s rare to hear commentators praising the BBC, but Polly Toynbee produced the most compelling argument in support of the BBC which is well worth reading in full (How to Save The BBC, Guardin 6th Oct 2008)

Here’s a great quote:

The BBC’s continued existence is a red rag to the blue press, an anti-market endeavour they long to privatise or shrink to insignificance like the American PBS channel.

They see the BBC as a curious hybrid sitting like an elephant in the middle of the market. Ofcom is one of the BBC’s most dangerous predators, eager to snatch bits of it to prop up other broadcasters.

As competition regulator, it makes the ideological assumption that increased competition would raise BBC standards. But the view that all competition is good for the media is disproved time and again. Intense newspaper competition in the UK has driven down quality, and the BBC gets the most passionate audience appreciation scores for the very things that face least competition – Radio 4, Radio 3, CBeebies and the like.”

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said in a speech in January 2010:

“I know it is regarded as an act of faith by some that all print journalists should be baying for BBC blood, wanting it neutered or drastically reduced. I find it difficult to join that particular chorus for three reasons…. look across the water to America, where newspapers are in as much trouble as they are here. They have no public service broadcaster to speak of to contend with, and yet they are still in desperate trouble. So you could do an awful lot of damage to the BBC and still find you had not solved the problem of newspapers because it is actually a worldwide challenge, not a specifically British one.

Secondly, as a citizen rather than competitor, I’m afraid to admit that I really like, admire and respect the BBC – including, even, its website. Now, of course, there is plenty to criticise – the BBC can be arrogant, hard to work with, complacent, needlessly expansionist and insensitive to the plight of their colleagues in the commercial sector. We need to agree, or understand, the limits of its expansion.

But the BBC is almost certainly the best news organisation in the world – the most serious, comprehensive, ethical, accurate, international, wide-ranging, fair and impartial. So I hesitate to join the sometimes deafening chorus of BBC denigration, even though I suspect the Guardian would undoubtedly thrive even better in the digital world were the BBC’s website, in particular, to be curtailed.”

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