lietofinelondon

A Slice of the Public Pie.

In BBC on February 3, 2014 at 10:27 am

Michael White’s article in the Telegraph on Friday was a well-argued view about the decline of the quality and lack of direction at BBC Radio 3. Personally I always thought it was a shame that Radio 4 got the extra digital channel. A second Radio 3 channel featuring archive broadcasts would have been superb – and possible, reading as I have today of the demise of ‘Archers Lite’ – a more successful station audience-wise – not only pleasing Whitehall listeners but potentially being a way to find those elusive new audiences.

But what White’s article also reminds us is that discussions about the future of the BBC and the review and renewal of its Charter, have started. I am hoping that this will be a longer process than the ‘signed-on-the-back-of-a-fag-packet’ deal that Miller’s predecessor signed with the BBC over the level of the Licence Fee.

It needs to be fought over. Line by line. Not to destroy or undermine the BBC but more to ensure that the BBC remains relevant in the future.

Annually the BBC receives over £3.0bn directly from the public. I’m not here to argue whether it’s an unfair tax or not. Personally I think the Licence Fee is necessary, vital in fact, to ensure that the UK’s cultural landscape continues to enrich our lives. And I mean ‘cultural’ in the broadest sense. Alongside the BBC’s role in television, radio, online and the development and distribution of new technologies I also include the impact it has right across the cultural spectrum.

But while most of their activities are positive, there is no denying that the BBC has not always leveraged it’s Licence Fee wisely or fairly.

For every wildlife documentary featuring David Attenborough, there is something as crass as The Voice. For every Prom concert, Cardiff Singer or Young Musician there are the equally disturbing idiocies such as Maestro At The Opera. For every Shakespeare season there is a search for the UK’s best barber, baker or ballroom dancer to ‘snog, marry or avoid’.

Sadly the return of Tony Hall to the BBC as Director-General has seen a slide back to the imperialist approach of the Corporation he left behind in 2000. Surrounding himself with acolytes like Purnell and Bulford from that yesteryear period, the BBC has become more adamant than ever that it should not shrink further but rather – and more worryingly – expand.

Surely there must come a time when the BBC must recognise that it must reduce the scope of its services in some way? It doesn’t need to axe BBC Three for example but considering the amount it invests in developing new technology couldn’t that channel feasibly become a mobile or online channel only? That way not only could it guarantee that it served new audiences and reduce that channel’s overheads considerably but also lead the way for other companies to follow? Whenever the BBC invests in platforms or technology and takes the risks, other companies are more willing to follow.

And the BBC isn’t above a little ‘aggressive’ competitiveness. There’s ample evidence of that in their chase of ratings and I don’t buy that high ratings are evidence of quality. The BBC invented it’s so called Audience Appreciation index which clearly demonstrates that what the audience perceives as ‘quality’ or ‘distinctive’ doesn’t have to equate to high rating. I also believe that the BBC has played a role – however small – in the demise of local media and journalism.

Three billion pounds is more than a great deal of money. What’s more it is public money, so it comes as no surprise that the concept of ‘top-slicing’ – or sharing a portion of the Licence Fee – resurfaces whenever the future of the BBC is debated.

Fortunately for the bean counters and the policy wonks based at the BBC’s new billion pound fortress, there has never been a cogent or well-argued reason for top-slicing. In the past it’s only been other broadcasters who have argued for it, often against the backdrop of falling commercial revenues.

But perhaps it is because the argument is not bold enough? Perhaps that slice skimmed off the top of the BBC’s coffers should be made available for everyone to share?

Michael White refers to Classic FM’s bid for a cut, arguing that BBC Radio 3 isn’t ‘distinctive’ enough. How the BBC must hate it when their own buzzwords are used against them.

So what if an amount – a figure extrapolated from the total amount of the Licence Fee collected and factoring in the billions the BBC aims to save in the long term – was ring-fenced for the Creative Industries as a whole. Of course I mean orchestras, opera companies etc but also theatres and other performing groups and even the digital and technology companies that are now part of the fraternity.

Of course there would have to be incredibly strict criteria – as well as checks and balances – in place to ensure that this money was awarded correctly. And even stricter conditions would also need to be set in terms of how that money is spent and impact measured.

Perhaps one condition could be that the money received has to be spent within the organisation’s local community, in a sense paying it back into the lives of Licence Fee payers. Larger organisations could potentially guarantee to match-fund any money through their own fundraising efforts. Or the BBC could make good on its often talked about promise of greater collaboration and make long-term investments in permanent exhibitions, co-productions and the like rather than short-term investments that benefit the Corporation more than their partners. I think the shine of the history of the world in one hundred objects has dulled considerably and nothing new seems to be on the horizon.

It’s not unfeasible that the BBC could get a small return on investment in some way. Not a financial return necessarily but perhaps sharing any audience data or insights from funded projects for example.

But is there another reason to seriously consider top-slicing?

Over and above any industry-led argument is there also a moral argument for the BBC to share its largesse?

I’m not suggesting this in reference to the tidal wave of badly handled calamities that have engulfed the BBC in the last few years, the backwash of which is still swamping the organisation. In the face of accusations of corporate malfeasance, weak management, even weaker succession management in the guise of Tony Hall and a continued lack of strategic direction aside, is it right that one single organisation should be in receipt of this entire levy?

And that’s before you factor in the dominant role of BBC Worldwide in to the equation, and the millions of pounds it returns the the Corporation every year. And with Tony Hall looking to expand – not shrink – the BBC’s international business that revenue stream looks set to grow.

And other BBC departments take public money from elsewhere. For example, the BBC Philharmonic receives from Salford Council. I love the BBC Phil and laud their projects such as the current collaboration with the Hallé and their funky Presents series, but what is the money from Salford spent on exactly?

I’m even sure that the hundreds in the BBC marketing department could make it look like the BBC was acting like some ‘public service philanthropist’ throwing proverbial pennies from behind a silk screen.

A while back Maria Miller insisted that the Creative Industries make a greater revenue contribution. Perhaps the creative opportunities of top-slicing could help.

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