A new YouGov survey shows 70% of us are proud of the BBC, however this doesn’t mean that the organisation’s present form is assured. The future shape of the corporation was discussed under the title ‘My BBC in 10 Years’ Time’ at BAFTA this Monday. Being fans of quality media, The Film Review went along to see what the UK might stand to lose or gain from a brave new Beeb.
The BBC is a Marmite topic. Though most of us love an evening sat in front of Cranford or Frozen Planet, there is a vocal minority for whom a compulsory licence fee is so abhorrent that they’d probably pass on it even if Shakespeare was resurrected to run drama and W.G. Grace was miraculously re-animated to take over Test Match Special. Clearly a group of informed and intelligent individuals was needed to get to the bottom of the matter.
The speakers were a brainy lot indeed. First there was Mark Damazer, a former BBC employee who rose to become Controller of Radios 4 and 7 between 2004 and 2010, and is now Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford. Then Alex Connock, a sharp-suited entrepreneur in the fields of TV and digital, and visiting journalist fellow at the Reuter’s Institute at Oxford University. Finally TV and media guru and all-round agent provocateur, Peter Bazalgette, was the third to take the platform.
The debate was chaired by the mellifluously-toned broadcaster and journalist, Steve Hewlett. Caroline Thomson, the BBC’s Chief Operating Officer, joined the end of the discussion. To ensure the proceedings didn’t only reflect the opinions of a lofty elite, we were treated to the results of a new YouGov survey of the public’s attitudes to the BBC projected on a large screen behind the delegates.
Although the poll showed that most of us enjoy the BBC, it also indicated we were much less certain if we wanted to actually pay for it. When the public was asked whether they would pay for BBC TV channels on subscription rather than licence fee, only BBC One and BBC Two got an approval rating of more than 50%. Despite these and other poll results which showed people didn’t want to pay for the BBC, it is has been pointed out by none other the Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov, that these results should be taken with a pinch of sociological understanding (read Kellner’s blog post on poll results and question framing).
At the very least, a licence fee is a strange anomaly in a post-Thatcher world, where we may not even use any BBC services but still have to pay for them if we own a telly. Nonetheless, the BBC does seem to be generally held to be a mark of quality. So, what do the great and the good think?
As befits a Master of an Oxford College, Mark Damazer started on a philosophical point. He stated that the value of the BBC is entirely a subjective and political matter, an “ideological belief”. Damazer reminded us that the licence fee is good value compared to other alternatives. This lead him nicely on to the media elephant in the room, Alternative Number One – Sky. Being a good sport, Damazer gave Sky credit for bringing us 24-hour news, revolutionising the way we watch sport and providing exceptional customer service. He couldn’t help reminding us of James Murdoch’s famous McTaggart speech from 2009 when he appeared to propose that the print news model of self-regulation was the only guarantee of independence in media… and look where that’s got us.
The heart of Damazer’s position was taken from economics. The BBC is a ‘merit good‘, that is it is a commodity that society benefits from regardless of the ability to pay. He clarified that it is “not a market failure organisation”, although it must fill in for market failure. (The BBC must however invest more in training schemes.) Despite all this economic jargon, Damazer still managed to keep the attention of the audience – a skill he no doubt learned as a BBC broadcaster.
Although he doesn’t have a Mancunian accent, Alex Connock is a vigorous advocate of Manchester. His argument had two broad points. Firstly the BBC should cut costs by moving wholesale to Salford (bar the political department), where wages are lower. As an entrepreneur, it was natural that the importance of increasing revenue would be the other plank of his argument. More overseas sales, which are woefully inadequate at present, are key. The move north would also help exports by leading to a more creative organisation. Connock explained that not only is Manchester a particularly industrious city, but big companies based in smaller cities are generally more innovative. He calculated that only 13% of the world’s top 30 brands (four companies) are based in capital cities.
After Damazer’s earnest, and Connock’s wry, observations, Bazalgette took to the lectern like a natural. His speech started by continuing the rather kosher (or halal) approach to pork-based metaphors. Damazer had already warned against the ‘salami-slicing‘ approach to cutting costs, but for Bazalgette it was narrow concerns of pork-barrel politics that should be avoided.
Bazalgette is a titan of independent television, but still managed to have a few good things to say about Auntie. The BBC makes a great contribution to the national economy, politics and culture, specifically in three areas a) by providing balanced news and information b) by its investment in original programming and c) by investment in new talent. However, he also had three issues with the corporation: a) is it right they have 55% of the radio market? b) if it has to invest in original programming, must 60% be made in-house? c) the licence fee is very old fashioned and micro-payments might be a better way of raising money.
After the speeches, everyone sat down for a short, but elevated, debate. Perhaps scared by the slightly Marxist overtones of the term ‘ideological’ (Marx did write The German Ideology after all), Caroline Thomson tried to reassure everyone that the BBC is a civic venture that exists by social consensus and not ideological. Bazalgette, not a man to mince words, agreed with Damazer that a licence-fee funded news service is ideological, but it is also “a great expression of a mature democracy”. Damazer himself pointed out that an ideology is a system of beliefs, an expression of polity (and was nothing to get hung about). Phew.
Despite two of the three speakers coming from what one might call ‘the private sector’, there seemed to be a general belief that the BBC was a producer of quality programming and was a benefit for the country. Any differences revolved about revenue – whether the licence fee is a good, or practicable, thing in the future. Although no real conclusions were reached, it was pretty obvious that removing a licence-fee that provided so much quality programming at such a reasonable price would be the triumph of ideology over good sense.