Diary

John Naughton

The notion that the BBC is independent of the government of the day is one of those quaint constitutional myths by which Britain is governed, like the doctrine of ministerial accountability or the notion that no tawdry political thought ever crosses the mind of the Attorney-General. It is true that the Home Secretary (or, nowadays, the Heritage Secretary) does not park his tanks on the Director General’s lawn. But then he doesn’t need to. After all, the government chooses the Governors of the BBC and, through the licence fee, sets its income. If things get rough then the Special Branch can always be sent in (as they were during the Zircon affair). There is also the clause in the BBC’s licence which gives the Home Secretary the power to march in and take possession of all or any of the BBC’s ‘stations, offices and works’ if he thinks an emergency has arisen. These things apart, the BBC is completely independent.

That is not to say that there haven’t been tensions in the relationship between the Corporation and its masters. Ever since Harold Wilson’s time the notion that the BBC was conspiring to undermine the government has been received wisdom in 10 Downing Street. Mrs Thatcher’s hostility to the Corporation was unremitting and one of her advisers recently revealed that she actively contemplated privatising it. During the Falklands War the BBC’s insistence on referring to ‘British troops’ rather than ‘our boys’ rendered the Prime Minister incandescent with rage. But the ITV franchises came up for renewal before the BBC’s Charter, and so it was the commercial sector which felt the full force of her wrath. The implications of this monumental venting of pique will become clear when the new franchises start up in January.

Once the lady had been unhorsed, however, the steam seemed to go out of the relationship. Early in the Gulf War, John Major was invited by one of his more neanderthal backbenchers to indulge in a routine spot of BBC-bashing during Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons. Major pointedly declined the opportunity and went out of his way to compliment the World Service on its coverage of the conflict. As he did so, one could almost hear the sighs of relief in Broadcasting House and Television Centre. From that moment on it was clear that, whatever else happened, the Government would play ball when it came to renewing the Charter.

The Beeb had also been getting its house in order. Marmaduke Hussey was appointed by the Thatcher regime to sort out the Corporation in the aftermath of the Real Lives affair. Hussey came from Times Newspapers and was not appointed for his managerial competence (a subject which raised many a hollow laugh from former Times employees) but for his political ‘soundness’ and general bloody-mindedness. This he proceeded to demonstrate with a vengeance, starting with the brutal sacking of Director-General Alasdair Milne and continuing with the appointment of Michael Checkland as his successor and the recruitment of John Birt as Deputy D-G with a remit to sort out the news and current affairs operation. Checkland, an accountant, set about pruning the BBC while Birt embarked on a root-and-branch reform of the news and current affairs division, with predictable effects on staff morale and journalistic licence. The result was a BBC which became increasingly cautious and deferential. The nadir of this obsequiousness came during the 1992 General Election when a Panorama programme tracing the links between the Lawson boom and the current recession was abruptly pulled from the schedules and reinstated only when Major was safely installed in Downing Street.

Given this background it was unlikely that the Green Paper on the future of the BBC would be a radical document. And so it has proved. By the time the Paper finally arrived on 25 November, its principal points were widely known. The big news was that the BBC was to be preserved as ‘a major public service broadcasting organisation’ funded, in the main, by a licence fee: ‘no one had devised an obviously better system.’ In contrast to the 1988 White Paper, which disembowelled the old ITV system, Mr Brooke’s Green Paper is cautious, even-tempered, accommodating. It raises many more questions than it answers and concentrates on setting out a set of options for the future of the BBC. Should it shrink and become a provider merely of what the market does not provide? Should the ideal of public service broadcasting be achieved by having an Arts Council of the air which doles out licence-fee money to a variety of public service broadcasters – including some from the commercial sector? How should the BBC be made accountable, and to whom? Answers to these and other questions on a postcard please, to Mr E.W. Lister in Room 668 at the Heritage Department and do not write on both sides of the paper at once.

The Green Paper has an oddly perfunctory air. It gives the impression that Mr Brooke is just going through the motions, the main issues – the continuation of the BBC as a public institution and the extension of the licence fee – having effectively been decided. The perfunctory air is further reinforced by an eerie silence from those sectors which would normally see the BBC as their natural enemy. The Murdoch newspapers, for example, which used to attack the Corporation on a daily basis, have become strangely muted. Ditto for the ITV companies. It is as if these organisations have decided that a publicly-funded BBC is in their best interests; otherwise the Corporation might become a powerful competitor for their advertising and subscription revenues.

The atmosphere became even cosier when, two days after the publication of the Green Paper, the BBC launched its own manifesto under the banner of ‘Extending Choice’. This was widely billed as a ‘response’ to the Green Paper but in fact was nothing of the sort: it is the product of a corporate rethink which has been going on for at least two years. Although Chairman Duke Hussey and Director-General Michael Checkland were present on the podium when ‘Extending Choice’ was unveiled, the presentation was made by John Birt, Checkland’s designated successor and the man whose leadership will make or break the BBC. There couldn’t have been a clearer signal that the torch had passed to a new, Armani-suited generation.

The strategy outlined by Birt is alternately pompous, vague and contradictory. On the one hand, the BBC of the future will ‘never make programmes simply and solely to win large audiences for their own sake’; nor will it ‘make or transmit programmes of the kind abundantly available elsewhere or programmes which are derivative, imitative or formulaic’. On the other hand, the BBC ‘should work in all programme areas and types’ and be ‘neither a cultural ghetto offering programmes only for élites and minorities, nor drawn into battle with an ever expanding number of commercial broadcasters looking for ever cheaper ways to chase ratings. Rather it will be a broad-based BBC offering something distinctive and of value, something satisfying and stimulating for everyone, something special for every licence payer.’

The reasoning behind the new BBC strategy goes something like this. The new technologies of video recording, satellite and cable mean that the BBC’s audience share will shrink from the 45-50 percent it enjoyed in its heyday to something closer to 30 per cent by 2000 and 20 per cent by 2010. (In households which have cable and satellite TV, the BBC’s share of viewing time is already down to 30 per cent.) The predicted decline in the BBC’s audience share is seen by Birt and his colleagues as inevitable. The Corporation’s problem then becomes that of justifying a universal licence fee (‘a poll tax on every viewer’, as one critic put it) when perhaps only a fifth of all viewers watch BBC programmes. What is the Unique Selling Proposition of a Corporation in such an uncomfortable position? The answer proposed by ‘Extending Choice’ is couched in four new buzzwords: Quality, Distinctiveness, Innovation and Efficiency. The USP of the new, improved BBC will be that it provides what the market cannot or will not provide. There will be no cheap foreign imports, no matter how popular. Instead there will be high-class news and current affairs; in-house drama productions which will make the Corporation ‘the National Theatre of the airwaves’; lots of home-grown light entertainment, including game shows, comedy and soaps; great national sporting occasions etc, etc. In short, the Best of Everything.

The BBC paper is long on rhetoric and short on detail. In interviews after its release Birt refused to be drawn on the fate of specific programmes. Many hacks interpreted the new policy as a death sentence for Neighbours, for example, but he declined to comment on that wretched but popular soap, or about the survival of Radio 1. When pressed for an example of what the new breed of incredibly innovative, distinctive, home-grown programmes would be like the D-G designate continually cited a single show – Have I got news for you?, a topical news quiz in which a panel of professional degenerates are goaded by an alternative comedian into making defamatory remarks about public figures. On the news and current affairs front he defended the new editor of Panorama (a Birt protégé) who was recently quoted as saying that she didn’t care if only five people watched the programme so long as it was well made and worth doing.

With all its talk of eschewing ratings while at the same time not becoming a cultural ghetto, ‘Extending Choice’ is a masterpiece of ambiguity, so one should perhaps not read too much into it. Its function, after all, is simply to get the BBC from here to a renewed Charter. But it looks suspiciously like a plan for an organised retreat. It suggests that the BBC is opting out of the ratings game, that it is throwing viewers to the wolves of cable, satellite and increasingly desperate ITV companies. If that is indeed the Corporation’s game plan then it is singularly unwise. Television is a popular medium or it is nothing, and a broadcaster that is not constantly striving to increase its audience share is a broadcaster on the skids.

The BBC’s contribution to the debate on its future is written on the assumption (probably correct) that the old cosy relationship with government has been restored, that the main issues involved in the renewal of its Charter have already been decided and that the national ‘debate’ which the Green Paper is supposed to stimulate is basically an exercise in steam-venting for pressure groups and interested parties, like Melvyn Bragg and Mrs Whitehouse. In the process the Corporation hopes to obscure the awkward fact that it is not the private property of Marmaduke Hussey, John Birt and their acolytes to dispose of as they see fit. Imagine the outrage there would be if the Director of the National Gallery declared that henceforth most of the Gallery would be closed to the public in order to enable the staff to concentrate on restoration and small specialist exhibitions.